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Sunday, August 7, 2011
Player, coach, optimist -- Abby Wambach does it all

By Beau Dure

BOSTON -- She scores goals. She saves goals. She coaches. She keeps her team focused. She helps her goalkeeper save penalty kicks. She signs hundreds of autographs, still working her way through a massive line even as her teammates and opponents -- from the home team -- have finished making the rounds.

At this point, could anyone be surprised by anything Abby Wambach does?

Saturday night against the Boston Breakers, she did what soccer fans have seen her do for a decade, rising above the defense to score two goals in a 2-0 magicJack victory. Even new fans who started following women's soccer when Megan Rapinoe's cross found Wambach's head in the dying moments against Brazil in the World Cup would call that a familiar sight, especially with Rapinoe providing the service for magicJack after a midseason trade.

"When you've got Megan on the sideline and balls are coming in with our service and our set plays, it's going to be hard to stop," Wambach said.

Since the World Cup, Wambach has added coaching magicJack, on top of playing, to her duties. The team, on the bubble for a playoff spot a couple of weeks ago, has won three straight and has almost clinched third place.

One tactical adjustment: Her team has switched from playing three defenders at the back to four, and they have two shutouts in this win streak. She likes having a team that can play in different systems as circumstances dictate, but the change is paying off for now.

"We don't give up goals," Wambach said. "And not giving up goals gives us confidence because we have so many amazing attackers."

Captain Christie Rampone, who also has experience as a player/coach, sees the change as especially helpful as magicJack plows through a crowded post-Cup schedule with many players already fatigued from their time in Germany.

"The one thing I did say was, 'Let's play four in the back, because we don't really have the legs to do three,'" Rampone said. "Three was fine when we were fresh at the beginning of the season, and I think we did well. But coming back from the World Cup, it's hard to play three back."

The magicJack defense was beaten only twice against Boston, and Wambach helped in bailing them out each time. When a looping header went over goalkeeper Jill Loyden, Wambach was there to knock the ball off the line and help the recovering defenders scramble and clear it.

And when magicJack conceded a penalty kick, Wambach popped up right behind Boston's Lauren Cheney, her teammate on the national team, and said something as Cheney lined up the kick.

Cheney thinks she tipped off Loyden on the direction of the kick.

"She told Jill where I was going," Cheney said. "Pretty sure that's what she did. She knows where I go, so she told the goalie."

Wambach confirmed that she did indeed signal the direction she thought Cheney would go, but that Loyden had already -- correctly -- figured it out, making the save and keeping magicJack ahead 2-0. The deflated Breakers mounted little attack the rest of the game.

Wambach says she's adjusting to her role as player/coach, running to the sideline to set up substitutions and thinking about tactics at halftime rather than obsessing over her own game.

Perhaps most importantly, she has a leadership role in keeping her team's focus on the field even as their owner, Dan Borislow, and Women's Professional Soccer trade barbs and legal documents.

"There's always a time and place when things need to be dealt with," Wambach said. "But the truth is, we've let Dan deal with the stuff off the field. For us, it may affect us down the road, but we're not focusing on that. All we're focusing on is the task at hand."

Rampone, the team's other key leader, concurred.

"We try not to think about all that stuff," Rampone said. "The league is existing, and we're here and we want to make it work. We're going to do anything in our power, and that's to play good soccer and not let anything affect the sport that we love."

Wambach is still optimistic about the league and her team.

"The disputes between Dan Borislow and the league will get solved, and this team will hopefully keep winning games," Wambach said.