Abby Wambach: Gold Medal Will Cement Legacy as All-Time Great

James ReaganCorrespondent IIJuly 31, 2012

Abby Wambach and the U.S. women's soccer team have become well acquainted with success in the last two Olympics. Two consecutive gold medals, both won in dominating fashion, will do that to you.

And yet, Wambach still hungers for more. Even as the juggernaut that is the U.S. women's soccer team quietly rolls toward another possible gold medal, she is still not satisfied. Instead her goal remains ridiculously lofty as she strives to leave the U.S. women's soccer team better than she found it.

It's a daunting goal because in many ways, the U.S. team can't really seem to get much better.

They have won three Olympic gold medals in the last four Olympics, and they have never finished worse than third place at the World Cup. And now this year, they will be going for the first-ever three-peat gold medal in Olympic soccer.

Wambach has been with the team since 2001, so she has been a steady presence through this sustained period of success. Her early days with the team saw her playing alongside U.S. soccer legends like Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy. It was Hamm and the "Fab Five" that put women's soccer on the map in the U.S. thanks to their historic triumph in the 1999 World Cup. 

Wambach's breakout season came in 2004 when the forward finished the year with 31 goals and 13 assists. This included the 2004 Athens Olympics where she made her presence known in a huge way with the deciding goal in the gold-medal game against Brazil. It was the final game for many of the "Fab Five," which effectively passed the team over to players like Wambach.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics were unfortunately a different story as Wambach suffered a gruesome leg injury that prevented her from competing. The U.S. team struggled initially without Wambach, even losing their first Olympic match to Norway 2-0. They then found a way to succeed without Wambach and ultimately won their second consecutive gold medal. 

If any of Wambach's critics want to point to something as a sign of failure, they can look at the team's last three World Cup appearances. Twice they were eliminated in the semifinals and last year saw a heart-wrenching championship defeat to Japan by penalty kicks.

And yet, surprisingly that tournament may have been a good thing for U.S. soccer. The women's soccer team, which has so long been a minor blip on most sports networks, got major attention thanks to a dramatic comeback in the semifinals against Brazil. 

Only seconds away from elimination and down to 10 players, the U.S. still found a way to score. It was Wambach who scored the tying goal with one of her trademark headers.

Yet, the feelings of joy surrounding the epic comeback were soon replaced by heartbreak with the loss to Japan. It's not heartbreak that they have ignored. Instead, the team has embraced it and let it serve as motivation. During their 2012 schedule, they have lost one game (also to Japan) and for the most part have dominated the competition.

So far, the U.S. has continued that domination through the Olympics with a 4-2 victory over France and a 3-0 victory over Colombia. Wambach has made her presence known with a goal in each game. Now with 140 career international goals, Wambach ranks as the second-best scorer on the women's soccer team behind Hamm's 158 goals. 

At 31 years old, it's likely that Wambach is not that far off from retirement even though she has not yet addressed the subject.

This could very well be her final Olympics, which means that another gold medal would be a significant addition to her collection. 

Not only would her track record be almost perfect in Olympic play, but she could get respect for the time she spent with the team. First, she was playing with Hamm and Chastain, who were carryovers from the 1999 World Cup win. Now she's playing with rising superstars like Alex Morgan and Hope Solo who will likely ensure that the team is still a force even when Wambach leaves.

Ultimately, the gold medal will give her three medals, meaning she had success in every Olympics. This will help to ensure her legacy as an all-time great. Between her 140 goals and her unorthodox way of playing that mostly involves throwing her body around, she will be hard to forget.