|espnW.com: News & Opinion|
ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- A day after kicking soccer balls into taxicabs on the "Late Show with David Letterman," Abby Wambach's next stop on her World Cup homecoming tour was a familiar place -- home.
Although the U.S. national team star's night was limited to signing autographs and speaking to the crowd at halftime, Wambach still managed to electrify her fans.
A record-setting crowd of 15,404 people packed Sahlen's Stadium in the sweltering heat of downtown Rochester on Wednesday night to pay tribute to the hometown hero as her pro team, magicJack from Boca Raton, Fla., lost 3-1 to the Western New York Flash.
"I want to be there for Rochester," said Wambach, who did not play because of a lingering Achilles injury. "There are so many other opportunities I could have had … but not for one second did I think about not coming to Rochester, because I know this city is cheering the loudest."
The 15,404 fans set Women's Professional Soccer and stadium attendance records. Streets around the stadium were clogged for miles, and the lines of people waiting to get into the stadium did not dissipate until around kickoff. The temperature at the time of kickoff was 92 degrees.
"I know you all came here to watch me play and I know that maybe some of you will be disappointed that I'm not going to, but I must say this is some pretty good soccer, right?" Wambach said to the crowd, which cheered in response.
Interest in women's soccer in the U.S. picked up after Wambach scored on a header in the 122nd minute of the U.S.'s World Cup quarterfinal victory over Brazil on July 10. She also had key goals against France in the semifinal and in the loss to Japan in the final.
"The atmosphere was amazing, very fitting for Abby, and I'm excited to be a part of it," magicJack and USWNT teammate Becky Sauerbrunn said. "To see an entire community not only rally around one of its own but also women's soccer in general is awesome to see."
Wambach received her first huge applause of the night before the game when Rochester Mayor Thomas Richards presented her with a key to the city.
"Although they didn't win the final, I am so proud of how Abby played and represented her country," said Valerie Salamone, 12, of Rochester, one of the hundreds of girls to get an autograph from the hometown hero. "I was watching her on TV a few days ago, and now she's here talking to me. It is so crazy."
Also before the game, WPS executives presented flowers to all players present who represented their countries in the World Cup, including U.S. team members Alex Morgan of the Flash and Megan Rapinoe and Jillian Loyden of magicJack. Flash forward and Brazilian national team member Marta, considered by many to be the best player in the world, also was honored.
Goalie Hope Solo, defender and team captain Christie Rampone, and midfielder Shannon Boxx are U.S. players also on the magicJack roster, but they did not attend the game.
"After the [World Cup final Sunday], we didn't feel proud; we were a little heartbroken," Morgan said of the U.S. team's loss to Japan on penalty kicks. "Coming back to this outpouring of support kind of made us feel proud to wear that silver medal … and just grabbing the hearts of the Americans, we didn't really realize what was going on until we landed in the U.S."
More than a thousand fans attended a rally at a local mall earlier in the day featuring Wambach, Morgan, Rapinoe and U.S. teammate Ali Krieger, who is unsigned.
"Not only do I feel humbled by the experience, and I know we didn't come home with the Cup, but I think we inspired an entire nation and I know the message the women's national team always try to send is winning," Wambach told the crowd at halftime. "But I think we did something more here. I've never been so proud to be an American my entire life."
Midfielder Christine Sinclair, a member of Canada's team, scored twice to lead the Flash, putting the team ahead 1-0 before Ella Masar tied the score at 1 in the 40th minute.
Sinclair gave the Flash a 2-1 lead in the 51st minute, and McCall Zerboni added another goal in the 69th minute to give the Flash a 3-1 lead.
"Abby and Alex played so well in the World Cup, and they deserve so much support," said Ann Marie Russo, 9, of Webster, N.Y, who said she had to beg her parents to get tickets.
"Young girls really don't see a lot of women athletes performing at a high level on television so I think it was very special for them to get a chance to watch the national team in the World Cup," said Marissa Russo, Ann Marie's mother. "I think it is real cool when you look around and see all the young girls wearing their soccer jerseys or an Abby jersey. This is a very special night for them."
Before Wambach relinquished the microphone at halftime, she had a special message to the crowd on the future of U.S. soccer.
"Thank you so much for supporting not just me, but my teammates," Wambach said. "I promise you, there's a big tournament next summer [the 2012 Olympics]. I'm not coming home unless I have gold.
"Gold is it, baby."