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Friday, February 3, 2012
Abby Wambach stays positive

By Mechelle Voepel

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Star forward Abby Wambach was here in the heartland in September as the U.S. team faced Canada in an exhibition at LiveStrong Sporting Park. Admittedly, the glow around the Americans then would have been even greater if they had won the Women's World Cup in July.

But even with runner-up status, the U.S. team was still a huge draw to MLS team Sporting Kansas City's home, a soccer-specific stadium that opened in the summer of 2011.

Back in Kansas City on Friday as the keynote speaker for the city's 18th annual Women's Sports Awards Celebration, Wambach was caught up in a swirl of emotions. On the down side, of course, was the lingering disappointment from Monday's announcement that Women's Professional Soccer will not play a 2012 season, though it hopes to return at some point.

On the positive side, a week ago, the Americans secured their spot in the 2012 Summer Olympics, an event Wambach is hungrier than ever to win after falling short in the World Cup in Germany.

Another lift for Wambach's spirits was this luncheon itself, which is put on by an organization called the Women's Intersport Network for Kansas City. Female athletes from Billie Jean King to Brandi Chastain to Julie Foudy to Picabo Street have spoken at this event and have expressed amazement at how much it moves them.

The luncheon honors high school girls state champions from the Missouri and Kansas sides of the metropolitan area, plus local women who have achieved in athletic pursuits regardless of age, illness or other challenges.

"It's not often you're in a room with this many people who all feel the same way you do," Wambach said. "I can't wait to go jump on the treadmill. I've been so inspired."

That word -- inspiration -- was one Wambach kept repeating as she addressed a crowd of about 1,500. And it's something Wambach says she refuses to lose sight of despite the obstacles that women's professional soccer continues to face.

"You have to take all of the good things with the bad and make the best of them," Wambach said. "It has been a hard week for women's soccer. But, as a community, we've got to lose the egos. We have to get past the issues that have come between us."

She readily admits that's easier said than done. WPS was having its financial struggles even before an ongoing legal battle with magicJack owner Dan Borislow. Expenses for that, WPS officials said, were a big part of the final blow to the 2012 season.

Wambach was named coach/player of magicJack, a team based in South Florida, in July. She continues to voice support for Borislow, who sued the league after it terminated the magicJack franchise.

"I'm not sure how we proceed forward with the relationships that have obviously been damaged between Dan and the other league owners," Wambach said. "I've always been a proponent of Dan because he and [Western New York Flash owner] Joe Sahlen stepped in at a time when we needed them. People are quick to point fingers and blame. Dan is considered the villain in this, with all the media attention it's gotten.

"The truth is that the responsibility is all of ours. Nothing rises or fails with one person. We all need to step back, look at ourselves, and take responsibility for all of the things. Nobody is talking about the amazing things Dan did and how he treated his players. Everybody focuses all the attention on the negative. And that's not how we're going to get the WPS back and running. You can't build something great on negativity. It has to be in a positive manner."

Wambach acknowledged: "Dan has a different way of doing business. Dan goes about life a little differently than the rest of us. But we're going to have to figure this out. We're not going to go home crying. We're going to keep fighting for this league."

Wambach's next immediate objective is to try to help the U.S. team win gold at the London Games this summer, with the hope that it again will spark more sponsorship/owner interest in the women's league for 2013.

She also thinks an outreach must be made toward MLS, with the belief that some kind of partnership with women's franchises could be mutually beneficial.

"I think it's probably going to be necessary for a [women's] league to survive," Wambach said. "If we can get into a relationship with an MLS community, you've got many things built in. You've got infrastructure: people already in place in some jobs who might be able to help, stadiums, fields.

"There could be many costly things that are at least dramatically cut back, so you're in a position where you can actually succeed. And then see if maybe in a few years, you could even be making money."

Considering the adversity WPS and the Women's United Soccer Association before it have had -- despite soccer's popularity in the United States thanks to the women's national team's success -- it's likely Wambach's continued optimism for the future will generate a fair amount of skepticism. But she points to a facility such as LiveStrong and sees it as potentially "a perfect environment" for women's soccer as well as MLS.

"I think we do feel as a soccer community that bringing soccer to all of the fans is the goal and the mission for the sport in this country," Wambach said. "I want people and sponsors to become part of women's sports not because it's the 'right' thing to do but because it's the smart thing. And that it can make good business sense."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com