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Global Dec 23, 2014

Commentary: USWNT must drop Abby Wambach now, before it’s too late

 Six months out from the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada, the U.S. Women’s National Team is hardly setting the world on fire. Sunday’s drab 0-0 draw with Brazil in the International Tournament of Brasilia – in which the U.S. appeared for the first 70 minutes simply to be hunkering down in two banks of four to keep Marta from running wild – is merely the latest example.

Jill-Ellis-closeupThe U.S. have, if anything, regressed under head coach Jill Ellis. And while one could point to any number of reasons for the problems the U.S. have had as a team, an obvious place to start is the team’s most-powerful, highest-profile player: Abby Wambach.

The all-time leading scorer in international soccer history, Wambach was named CONCACAF Women’s Player of the Year on Tuesday. She famously equalized against Brazil in the 122nd minute of the 2011 World Cup quarterfinal, then went on to score in the semifinal and the final as well. But that was then, and this is now. Three and a half years is a long time in international soccer.

+READ: USWNT draws Brazil 0-0, takes runner-up in International Tournament of Brasilia

Wambach has not played well at the international level in a year, and hardly tore up the NWSL this season in the limited time she was healthy, scoring 6 goals in 10 appearances: One goal in 4 appearances against teams in the top half of the league’s goals-against category, and 5 goals in 6 appearances against teams in the bottom half.

And while it seems inconceivable that the USWNT would (or could) drop her from the squad altogether, when the 2015 World Cup rolls around, Wambach should be on the bench.

The reason is simple: Wambach, who turned 34 six months ago, simply isn’t up to playing as a central, focal-point striker in a possession-oriented side. Whether or not she has the tactical IQ to do it, her legs have gone. She doesn’t have the mobility to stretch defenses or pull them out of their shape, to drop deep to help circulate the ball and maintain possession, or to run onto balls from midfield. (At one point late in the USA’s 3-2 defeat to Brazil last week, for example Tobin Heath played a ball into acres of space which any other forward in the U.S. pool would have latched onto; Wambach simply couldn’t get there.)

As a result, the tendency with her in the lineup is simply to play the ball wide and cross it in. Static, predictable, ineffective.

And these antiquated tactics make things worse on the defensive side, as well. Wambach stays high, of necessity, but she doesn’t have the ability any more to press the ball and defend from the front. Add to that Carli Lloyd’s preference for getting forward at any opportunity (and also Megan Rapinoe’s tendency to pull wide), and the USWNT are frequently left with a gaping hole in the center of its midfield, facing opponents with time on the ball. The results are not pretty.

Amy-Rodriguez-USWNTIndeed, in the most recent match against Brazil, the U.S. simply abandoned their existing approach (if one can call it that), and dropped into a static, defensive 4=4-2 — a tactic that the squad might have derided to the media as bunkering, had it been employed by another team in CONCACAF.

After 70 minutes in which Wambach touched the ball with her feet fewer than 10 times, the U.S. threw on Amy Rodriguez for her first minutes of the tournament to run at the Brazilian backline. If the goal was avoiding defeat, and keeping a clean sheet, it worked. If the goal was to play in a manner befitting the ambitions of a team that likes to think of itself as the best in the world, not so much.

From a statistical standpoint, the USWNT have played 14 matches this year against opponents in the top 20 of the FIFA World Rankings. Wambach played in 11 of those, nine for 45 mins or more. She scored in only 2 of those matches – two goals against Korea DPR in the Algarve, one against Switzerland. In those matches, when Wambach was off the field, the U.S. scored 15 and conceded 7. When she was on the field, the U.S. scored 9 and conceded 8.

Excluding the 5-3 defeat to Denmark in the Algarve Cup, the numbers are 12 GF, 3 GA; and 9 GF, 7 GA, respectively. Thus, 21 of the US’s 24 goals against FIFA top 20 teams in 2014 were scored by other players. And 11 of Wambach’s personal total of 14 goals this year were scored against teams outside the FIFA top 20.

At this point, Wambach is a hindrance when she plays, not an asset.

Wambach stats(Editor’s note: Credit to Sarah Gehrke for the stats and the graphs.)

Wambach’s defenders maintain that she should still be given the opportunity to dig out one more top performance next summer. But no other player on this or any other national team could get away with playing poorly for a year at a stretch while still being guaranteed a starting spot.

Leaving Wambach in at this point sends all the wrong messages about how one succeeds on the team, and it’s simply unfair to Wambach’s teammates. Just ask Rodriguez, who was the leading American goalscorer in the NWSL this year, and yet has barely gotten a look-in since Ellis took over, never mind players like Sarah Hagen, who returned to the U.S. from Europe just to get a shot at the USWNT squad.

+READ: USWNT embarrassed by Brazil as Jill Ellis’ decisions continue to puzzle

More to the point, teams play the way they prepare. If the U.S. practices with a static center forward who wants crosses from wide to her head, not balls played centrally to feet, that’s what they’ll be ready to do come Canada. And the USWNT roster, and its preferred tactics, won’t be finalized next spring; they’re being finalized now.

Ellis’ team cannot succeed in an open, possession style—let alone do so against the world’s best—with a center forward who can barely run. It should not try.