Abby Wambach Exclusive: US Soccer Star Talks Japan, World Cup Hopes and More

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Abby Wambach Exclusive: US Soccer Star Talks Japan, World Cup Hopes and More
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Abby Wambach has just been watching the 2011 World Cup final again. If you need reminding, the story ends in U.S. heartache, with Japan victorious on penalties and a grief-stricken nation served hope by its football team just months after natural disaster left nearly 16,000 dead, as per CNN.

Wambach's goal in extra time could have claimed the game's greatest honour for her country and the title she's waited a career for. It wasn't to be, but in accepting defeat with grace and humility, the 33-year-old and her teammates played their part in a story that transcended sport.

"It really put things in perspective," Wambach says. "The world is so big and every nation has its issues to deal with. This is a game we play; it's not about life and death."

Wambach has been thinking about Japan a lot lately. There was a recent friendly in Portugal against them, which finished 1-1, and she has contributed to a new documentary about Japan's emotional run from the grips of tragedy to World Cup glory.

"It's really touching and it gave me goosebumps to watch it," she says of the first episode of Fox Sports' Rise as One series, which premieres on March 25. 

"They (Japan) deserved to win the final. Not only for what it meant in that moment, but because they'd shown the world they belonged on the field with us. They had earned that respect.

"We came so close. We did everything we could possibly do. We missed some chances, but we played as well as we possibly could. Watching it back motivates me, and it also helps me understand what happened."

Those thoughts naturally lead to talk of redemption. The 2015 World Cup in Canada looms large for Team USA, and with it, Wambach's last chance to lay the ghost. She'll be 35 when it comes around. It's now or never, and the world's all-time leading international scorer—across the men's and women's game, with 167 goals in 218 appearances—is not leaving anything to chance.

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"You have to look at all the little things as if they're part of the big picture," Wambach says. "One small drill at practise might not seem that important, but if you focus on every single detail, you can try and ensure you're best prepared team at the tournament. That's our aim.

"I'm taking it day by day for now, and we have to qualify first, of course."

Wambach is too modest to admit it, but her mere presence on the field has a galvanising effect on the U.S. players around her. She's a leader by example, and her vast experience is there to draw on, especially for the 20-something likes of Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux and Megan Rapinoe.

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"I feel like I have a massive responsibility to the team, both on and off the field," she says. "It's not about one person—at the World Cup, it's 23 players on the roster and making sure the positive energy is there with all of them. New players can come in and you need to make sure they're fitting in well.

"I'm excited about it."

As a small girl growing up, Wambach never dreamed soccer could turn her into a household name, but two gold medals and a World Cup near-miss have captured the imagination of the American public and drawn ever-greater attention to the U.S. women's team she stars for.

"It's weird to consider being famous," she says. "It seemed like such an uphill battle when I started out, and for a while, I didn't think it was possible, but the World Cup in 2011 was the threshold.

"We went to that tournament and came back as heroes in our own country."

Olympic gold followed at London 2012, with Wambach and her young charge in Morgan leading the U.S. line in devastating fashion in their march to glory. No sooner were medals on necks, however, than thoughts turned to the quest to bring home a first World Cup since 1999.

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It's the ending Wambach deserves, and she's giving every sinew of her being to make it happen. Forget the weight of expectancy—there's no amount of pressure that will dim her focus.

"I don't get nervous," she says. "I stay focused, and there's a calming energy that runs through me. Pressure brings high tension, but it's where I feel most alive.

"I stay completely present in the moment. Those really big games, at World Cups and Olympics, are when I'm at my best."

And that's why the U.S. needs her more than ever. And why they'll miss her when she's gone.

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