HOUSTON (CBS HOUSTON) – Abby Wambach, perhaps the most recognizable star in women’s soccer, didn’t like to be the center of attention during her high school years. She told a group of South Texas youth soccer players at Pershing Middle School on Sunday that she nearly gave up the game when she began to get uncomfortable with the amount of attention she got based on her athletic prowess.
“When I was 14 or 15 I was starting to get famous in my hometown and I would get noticed and I wasn’t very comfortable with that.,” Abby recollected. “I was talking to my brother one day and said I don’t think I want to play soccer anymore.”
Wambach, answering a question posed to her by a young lady from San Antonio on if she ever felt that she wanted to give the sport up at any point during her playing life. Being honest and candid with the young athletes, she shared some advice her brother gave to her when dealing with the added pressure and attention her talent and success was bringing her.
“My brother said, ‘Abby you are extremely talented at what you do, and you may hate it at moments, but the reality is that it would be huge waste (if you quit)’,” Wambach recalled. “I had to have the mindset that I had to honor the talent I was given.”
She honored that talent indeed to one of the most prolific careers in women’s soccer history. While not comfortable with being a star initially, Wambach is using her household name status to help grow the sport she loves and give back to the soccer community that has elevated her to being one of the game’s biggest stars.
Wambach’s appearance was the anchor component of South Texas Youth Soccer Association’s Play Hard, Play Fair fundraising event to benefit TOPSoccer. TOPSoccer provides opportunities for kids with mental or physical disabilities to learn and play soccer. Local athletes from all over the South Texas region fundraise for the campaign and the top fundraisers earned opportunities to play a scrimmage with Wambach and earn a photo and autograph with their US soccer star.
“For me it’s important that these kids understand giving back,” Wambach said. “This is one of my favorite events I get to be a part of; because not only does it make me feel good about what I do, but I hope to inspire these young kids to not just think about themselves and to think about something that may be more important. It’s a perfect fit.”
Wambach’s celebrity now allows her to be a torchbearer for a sport that for many years been culturally and athletically irrelevant in the eyes of US sports fans. However, in the last two decades US soccer has not just established a presence, but it may be the sleeping giant of Amercian sports. Both the US men and women had memorable runs in their last World Cup appearances, MLS will be expanding to 20 teams in North America in 2015 with a second franchise in New York City, and ESPN’s recent deals to acquire both the US and Mexican national team rights for broadcasts, is a sign that soccer is definitely rising in importance.
Wambach feels it is up to her and the rest of the US stars, men and women, to continue to grow the sport on the grass roots level with public appearances and fundraising events that target the sport’s growth.
“I think the responsibility is on all of us, but the reality is that Alex (Morgan) myself, Hope (Solo) Megan Rapinoe, these are the type of things that we need to do to keep the game growing in the right direction.” Wambach said. “For so long soccer wasn’t a major sport here. We want to make sure we are on the right side of history and I think it is important not just for ourselves but for the next generation as well.”
Wambach is one of the most decorated athletes in US Soccer history with two Olympic gold medals, a silver medal in the 2011 Women’s World Cup, and a 2012 FIFA Player of the Year award, which only scratches the surface of her accomplishments on the pitch.
The one accomplishment though that has eluded her is a World Cup championship. Despite two third-place finishes and their memorable runner-up finish in the 2011 tournament alongside fellow stars Hope Solo, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe; it has been since 1999 since the US women have taken international soccer’s greatest prize.
Wambach’s next and perhaps final, opportunity at a women’s soccer’s greatest title will be in the Canadian hosted 2015 World Cup.
“The reality is I have never won a World Cup and I am a heck of a competitor and I would pbe not that nice of a person for the next 40 years if I don’t get one,” Wambach said. “I put it on my shoulders that we haven’t won (a World Cup) since 1999 and I have been on this team since then and I feel personally responsible for that. I want to right that ship and make this country great in not only the Olympics but the World Cup as well.”
Wambach finds herself rooting for MLS franchises that are in cities that don’t have women’s professional soccer. Houston, which has a sparkling facility for soccer in BBVA Compass Stadium, is one of those markets. MLS’s Portland Timbers added the NWSL’s Thorns to their portfolio and may have created a model for an MLS team to own a team in the women’s game as well. Wambach feels that Portland’s success with a profitable Thorns franchise has given MLS owners an incentive to follow their model. Houston, Wambach feels, is a market where the Portland model makes perfect sense.
“I know the Dynamo has a phenomenal fan base and they have done really well,” Wambach said. “To have the infrastructure already set up..that’s the stuff that is so hard to build. We would love to be a part of some of these MLS franchise because it worked in Portland and I think Houston would be a great place to do it.”
Follow Alex Del Barrio on Twitter: @ADBSportsguy
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