Abby Wambach will not play in NWSL this season. Instead of taking the field in competitive matches for the Western New York Flash, she'll train and rest to get ready for this summer's World Cup. That's hugely important for a player who is going to be 35 years old by the time the tournament starts.
Unsurprisingly, Wambach's decision has been met with concern and questioning. It's to be expected when the greatest goalscorer in international history makes a major decision. But part of the eyebrow raising comes from the fact that Wambach is vital to the U.S. women's national team this summer - a problem that's been years in the making.
After the U.S. won the Olympic gold medal three years ago, it was clear that the Americans would have to move on from Wambach. It wouldn't have to completely forget about Wambach — she intended to play for her first ever World Cup title in 2015 and was about to be named FIFA World Player of the Year — but the team couldn't depend on Wambach to play seven matches in less than a month and carry the load the way she had done for years. That just wasn't a realistic expectation of a 35-year-old, and with an array of attacking and midfielder talent, there was no reason for Wambach to bear that burden.
Tom Sermanni started the Americans' move away from Wambach. He incorporated Christen Press into the team, giving the team another option up top. Crystal Dunn also entered the picture for a more attacking option at fullback, and the skillful Morgan Brian joined up despite still finishing out her time at the University of Virginia. The team focused on maintaining possession, playing quicker and not using knockdowns and crosses as a first option going forward. If nothing else, the team had other options and was becoming a more versatile.
A bad 2014 Algarve Cup ended that progress, though. Sermanni got the boot and in came Jill Ellis, who has tried a variety of things. Players have moved positions, and the team has tried attacking every which way possible. It's tried to be versatile, and it's tried to exploit specific weaknesses in opponents. But it hasn't worked.
Of late, Ellis has streamlined things. The team is not experimenting as much, nor is it taking as many chances. It's normal to consolidate in the run-up to the World Cup, but what the Americans are settling on is problematic.
Once again, the U.S. attack is geared towards long balls over the top, hoping to take advantage of the team's speed, and knockdowns with runners off of the target striker. That target striker is Wambach. And the runs over the top work because of the physicality she brings. But even that hasn't been extraordinarily successful, which leaves the Americans to depend on set pieces, which again means depending on Wambach.
The Americans' talented midfield has been neutralized, with the exception of Carli Lloyd. Lauren Holiday, arguably the best attacking midfielder in the world, is instead a deep-lying playmaker. Morgan Brian is her new central midfield partner, neutralizing the youngster as well. Heather O'Reilly spends an inordinate amount of time on the bench and Ellis still hasn't figured out what to do with Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath. Toss in centerbacks and midfielders as fullbacks, leaving them with little push from the wings, and it's not like the Americans have many options beyond speed and size.
Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux, Amy Rodriguez and Press give them the speed, but only one person gives them the size. That's Wambach, still a central part to the American attack and, arguably, the one player that makes them function.
The U.S. was supposed to ease the burden on Wambach. It's tried, but that hasn't happened, and going into the World Cup, the team is going to depend on her as much as ever in big matches.
So as she sits out the NWSL season, hoping to avoid injury and stay fresh, the U.S. better hope it works. It better hope her time away is not a desperate attempt to save an aging body that is already too far gone to carry the load for a World Cup contender. This late in the game, the U.S. doesn't have any other options.