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USWNT Apr 21, 2015

USWNT: We should treat Abby Wambach as a player, not an icon

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This is not the first time that I have written about Abby Wambach and the 2015 World Cup in this space; nor is it likely to be the last.

And Lord knows not everyone has agreed with my take on Wambach on the field, or her proper place on the U.S. Women’s National Team’s forward depth chart (nor should they).

But I suppose that until now, I had largely assumed that we were at least all discussing the same question: whether Abby adds enough to this World Cup team, on the field and in the locker room, to warrant a spot in the starting 11 or the squad of 23.

+READ: USWNT: Doing the same thing and expecting different results, World Cup Edition

Some would say, though, that this is not what we should be asking, that the question is instead whether Abby is a big enough star, a big enough icon on the American cultural stage — much less on the world soccer stage — that she should be on the plane to Canada (and to Rio next summer) regardless.

I think this view gets matters the wrong way ‘round, and revealingly so. This perspective on the women’s national team — a focus on story, sentiment and celebrity, on the past rather than the present or the future — is characteristic of how the U.S. Soccer Federation markets the USWNT. (Just ask “the 99ers.“)

ChastainBut we’re not talking here about a person’s star power, or their place in American sports culture, in women’s soccer history. We’re talking about our World Cup roster.

And the purpose of the Women’s World Cup roster is (or ought to be) maximizing the USWNT’s chances to finally win another World Cup.

I certainly do not deny the idea that soccer can have important cultural impact, nor doubt the connections between, for example, perceptions of women in sports and broader issues of gender and feminism.

+READ: USWNT Commentary: Pressure Makes Us….shortsighted

Nor do I want to quarrel with the idea that the arc and impact of a player’s career should affect how one reacts to her on a personal level. Not at all.

The U.S. Women's National Team defeated Brazil 5-3 in a penalty shootout in the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup semifinals after the U.S. dramatically equalized after 122 minutes had been played in Dresden.

Soccer players may be cultural forces, they may be icons — but they’re soccer players first. All the rest flows from that. And for purposes of choosing rosters, deciding how to go about winning an international tournament, that’s what should matter.

This notion that a player’s symbolic value should trump what she brings to her team reminds me unpleasantly of the constant emphasis in U.S. women’s soccer on female players as role models for girls (and always girls).

+READ: Abby Wambach speaks in detail on USWNT, NWSL, wedding

I wonder, sometimes, whether the very focus on the effect that a female soccer player can have on those around her — by showing, for example, that a woman can play sports, can be valued for her qualities as an athlete, and still be a woman rather than merely an ersatz man — perversely undermines the idea that her playing has value and meaning in its own right.

Abby Wambach signing autographs at RFK

And that brings us back to Abby.

For me, to foreground what Abby means to women’s soccer, rather than what she does on the field (and, as the captain, off the field) is implicitly, if unintentionally to denigrate the importance of her continuing performances as an active soccer player right now, in the run up to this year’s World Cup.

Love Abby as a player or loathe her, she, like all of her teammates, deserves the respect of being assessed as a player first. And a celebrity second.

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