The U.S. women survived after Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers and Julie Foudy hung up their boots, and they’ll survive without Abby Wambachand Christie Rampone.
Thrive even, judging by that shiny World Cup trophy the Americans are bringing home from Canada.
For as much focus as there was on this being Wambach’s final World Cup – and last chance for the only title missing from her illustrious resumé – this tournament was really the beginning of the next era.
Carli Lloyd, a lesser light in previous tournaments, surpassed Wambach as the team’s focal point. It was Lloyd’s goalapalooza that jumpstarted the Americans, and she earned Golden Ball honors as the World Cup’s best player after scoring six times in the last four games, including a hat trick in the first 16 minutes of the final.
Julie Johnston, a last-minute add to the World Cup roster, was a finalist for the Golden Ball. She and Meghan Klingenberg, who was barely on the radar herself at the beginning of the year, anchored a defense that was the Americans’ backbone. Becky Sauerbrunn, who’d gotten only spot duty in previous tournaments, was perhaps the most vital member of the U.S. team.
And Morgan Brian, the youngest member of the World Cup team, was thrown into the starting lineup once the knockout rounds began and responded with the savvy and composure of a grizzled veteran. It was Brian who drew the foul that gave the Americans their first corner kick, which Lloyd buried to set the tone in the 5-2 U.S. victory.
“They’ve been great,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said of the newcomers. “I said when I picked the roster that you need the balance of youth and energy with experience. They’ve shown very clearly they belong. Now they’ve had big moments in big games, and the future is very bright.”
Indeed, for all the talk about the Americans being an “old” team, it’s really quite the opposite. Of the 16 players who saw meaningful playing time at the World Cup, all but three are 30 or younger. (Ali Krieger turns 31 at the end of the month.)
“We’ve got three girls born in the ’90s: me, JJ and Morgan Brian,” Sydney Leroux said. “It’s going to be good for us to be building (depth) with youth.”
That doesn’t take into account the other young players Ellis called in for friendlies and training camps, either.
Remember that Ellis only got the job 14 months ago. Though she brought in some younger players – Stephanie Cox, Allie Long, Crystal Dunn and Sam Mewis, just to name a few – for matches last year, she didn’t have much time to experiment. World Cup qualifying was in October, and once the calendar hit 2015, it was all about fine-tuning for the pursuit of soccer’s ultimate prize.
With Wambach, Rampone and Shannon Boxx all likely moving on, if not now then after next summer’s Rio Olympics, the Americans will need to retool. But given how well the youngsters played in Canada, it’s going to be more of a cosmetic update than a gut rehab.
“The future of this team is going to be very solid,” Rampone, who hasn’t decided yet whether to stick around for Rio, said after the final. “The (young players) are playing great soccer. They played big roles in this tournament, and I see them succeeding more in the future.”
Just as it was impossible to replace a Hamm or a Foudy, it will be impossible to replace Wambach when she decides to step away. She’s been the face of women’s soccer, not just in the U.S. but worldwide, for the better part of a decade.
She’s also the heart and soul of the U.S. team. The Americans are going to feel like their huddles are taking place in a library without Wambach’s exuberant and expletive-laden pep talks.
“Abby, in a lot of ways, is the glue to this team,” Alex Morgan said.
But no one is irreplaceable, Rampone said, and teams are meant to change. Do it right, and one generation will transition seamlessly into the next. Someone will emerge, just as Johnston, Klingenberg and Brian did here in Canada.
“There’s something new that’s happening here and this next generation is something I’m really proud of,” Wambach said. “I hope the former players feel that same sense of pride, because that doesn’t just happen overnight.”
The torch, which looks very much like a trophy in this case, has been passed.
This article was republished with permission from the original author, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today.