Soccer Legend Holds Court: Wambach Talks FIFA, Youth Safety and Retirement

Sunday, January 10, 2016
Lebanon — Abby Wambach looks you in the eye. She asks that you have the courtesy to return the favor.

Speaking to about 100 volunteers (and at least a few soccer fans) at former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign office in Lebanon on Saturday morning, Wambach emphasized contact. The recently retired scoring star of the U.S. national women’s soccer program, still reflecting the glow of last summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup triumph in Canada, Wambach’s ideas of contact aren’t limited to the role of campaign volunteer.

She’s taken to speaking for Clinton — Wambach and actress/screenwriter Lena Dunham spent Friday and Saturday canvassing on Clinton’s behalf around New Hampshire — because of the Democratic frontrunner’s notions of equality for all, Wambach said. But it’s something that can be applied every day … so long as we focus on the person in front of us and not the communication device in our palm.

“Conversation is undervalued now; it’s not part of the human experience,” Wambach said. “We need to have that human interaction again, to look up, find eye contact, where we become open and find out about people. We can agree to disagree.”

Certain things about Wambach, 35, defy argument.

She made that clear last summer’s World Cup, her fourth, would be her last. She didn’t see herself returning to professional club play either, which she made formal with her retirement announcement in October. She left the game owner of 184 international goals, more than any man or woman in the game’s history, many of them scored authoritatively off her forehead.

Two Olympic gold medals prefaced the World Cup success, as did six U.S. Soccer athlete of the year awards and seven seasons in three different domestic women’s soccer leagues. What arrives beyond that is uncertain; Wambach, a Rochester, N.Y., native who now splits of her time between California, Oregon and Florida, is content letting life evolve at its own pace.

“I’ve been afforded so many amazing chances to see the world, to learn, to meet new people, to see different cultures and countries,” Wambach said. “I’m just open to anything. My aperture is wide open.

“I guess I’m letting my life organically unfold as it should. I am taking a little time to get unfit, and that’s feeling kind of good right now.”

Wambach touched on a wide variety of soccer subjects during a short chat following Saturday’s 20-minute speech to the Clinton volunteers. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Valley News: I have a 12-year-old niece who is a soccer addict. She wants to know: How much soccer did you play when you were a 12-year-old?

Abby Wambach: Oh, man, every day, at least a couple of hours every day. My parents were really amazing in that they always put me in good environments. Always on a team, always had a practice to go to after school, always had tournaments and games and camps that I was going to during the summertime.

But the thing that I valued the most about my childhood is I was able to play basketball also. I think it’s really important to play multiple sports and not get too focused on one specific sport. Nowadays, clubs are demanding you be with them the full year round, and that’s just a way for the club to continually make more money. It’s not necessary. I wouldn’t be as good of a soccer player had it not been for basketball.

VN: That leads to my next question — what kind of a position do you take on the topic of single-sport specialization? At what age, if you have an interest in a sport, should you concentrate on it?

AW: For me specifically, I’m an advocate for multiple sports. Whether parents want to believe this or not, their kids probably won’t become pro athletes. It’s important for kids to use and learn as many sports as possible at a young age, because that just gives them more opportunity, as an adult, to transfer that into exercise, to transfer that into something to do to be a healthy person.

So often now, with all of the obesity rates climbing and whatnot, you need to give kids every opportunity to get outside, get active and play multiple sports at a young age. It’s really, really imperative. Even for me, who became a pro athlete, I wouldn’t have scored as many goals with my head had it not been for basketball: learning how to jump, learning the trajectory of rebounding balls. And, as a young kid, who wants to play one thing year-round? There’s a very small population of people that can do that.

VN: U.S. Soccer announced earlier this year a new series of concussion prevention protocols, with young kids in mind, including avoiding heading the ball at certain ages. Obviously, you made your reputation heading into the back of the net. What are your thoughts about keeping kids away from heading at a young age?

AW: I think there’s value in keeping kids safe 100 percent of the time, but if put in a safe environment and taught the proper technique for heading a soccer ball, that’s really important. I get the idea behind it, but then what you’re doing after the 14-year-old limit, because you can only head in games between the ages of 11 and 14, you’re going to lose an element of the game of soccer that’s actually really important. If they’re not learning those techniques and values at a young age, then when they get older, they’re not going to be good at them, either. We need to teach them at a young age, in a controlled environment, maybe with a softer ball, how to do it properly.

VN: As someone who butted heads with FIFA over the artificial turf issue with the Women’s World Cup, have you watched with any level of interest the arrests and prosecutions of FIFA officials by American and Swiss authorities?

AW: Oh, yeah. Clearly, FIFA has had some corruption in its walls. That’s not surprising; every big business, probably, has some sort of corruption going on. I just hope that the reform they have moving forward has more women in powerful positions making decisions, especially where the money gets allocated. We make up half of the population of people playing soccer. I’m just excited to see what happens, who becomes elected president, and hopefully turn FIFA around so that people look at it in a positive light.

VN: You got to experience all three pro women’s soccer leagues in the United States. Unfortunately, two of them (the Women’s United Soccer Association and Women’s Professional Soccer) failed. The National Women’s Soccer League seems to be doing OK. Contrast the experiences and tell me how you feel where the NWSL fits and how solid it might be.

AW: The NWSL is solid in that it at least has the backing of the United States Soccer Federation, which isn’t going to go bankrupt. (Like the USSF, soccer federations in Canada and Mexico also feed top talent to NWSL rosters.) If you have deep enough pockets, it will eventually survive, especially in this country right now. I think the challenge that we all face is bridging the gap in the women’s game between World Cup, the Olympics and what to do in those down couple of years. Having a league, also, is tough, because those players go and play in the World Cup and Olympics, so they’ll be absent from their club teams during those times. … We really need corporate sponsors. We really need to get the games and the people on the team to become household names in their respective cities.

For me, I’m hoping ESPN jumps at the chance at airing or becoming a partner of the NWSL. Or making it the ESPN League, whatever they want to call it, to ensure the league keeps going strong and is, in fact, the best league in the world.

VN: As you visit here, the U.S. women’s national team has begun its annual January camp in Los Angeles. It’s the first time since you retired. Feeling any withdrawal yet?

AW: I have FOMO — I’ve got serious fear of missing out, because it’s been so much a part of my DNA for years. It’s hard to just shut that off, so I’ve been texting and talking to all of my teammates about how it’s going, what’s the environment like and all of that. I’m in the process of trying to learn to let go a little bit. They’re going to be just fine without me. This team always has been and always will be fine without one individual. … I’m excited to see what happens but, yeah, I do miss my friends.

VN: Four years down the road, where do you see the U.S. being heading into the next Women’s World Cup?

AW: I think that the standard I have for this time is the top of the podium every time we enter a tournament, period. That’s a standard that will never go away. I don’t know what the team will even look like in four years, which is kind of cool to think about. But I’m excited them progress, excited to see what can happen, and the sky’s the limit. We’re the trendsetters in a lot of ways as it pertains to women’s football, not only on the field, but also contractually off the field in how women are treated, how women are paid. I think they’re all fighting for a contract negotiation. Their contracts are up — I’m still working on the past-tense verbiage — so it will be interesting to see how that negotiation goes.

VN: You got to work a little bit with Steve Swanson with the U.S. national team; he got his start up the road with the Dartmouth women about 25 years ago. Talk to me about working with him.

AW: Steve’s amazing. He’s one of the most genuine, honest, great guys ever. He’s been wildly successful (at the University of Virginia). His help this last summer was pivotal for our performance. He’s a stat man, so he tracked a lot of our stats. When you do that consistently over a couple-of-years period, you’re able to create and measure certain trends. What he’s doing is revolutionalizing the game. … He always puts a lot of emphasis in developing people; if develop people, the soccer component comes next.

VN: I know you said you’re looking to get yourself out of playing shape a little bit, relax and enjoy life.

AW: Do I look like it?

VN: You look like you could run a marathon right now. What do you see as your next athletic challenge?

AW: You just said it — I think I’m going to enter one of the big marathons in the country, see if I can complete one of those. I’m only going to do one, though. And I play golf; there’s this thing called the Celebrity Pro-Am Tournament that they have, so I’m trying to get good enough that I don’t make a fool of myself.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.

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