MANCHESTER, England – Abby Wambach has won games for the United States women's soccer team with her goal scoring.
On Monday, she helped the Americans dramatically defeat Canada 4-3 in an Olympic semifinal with her brains, guile and gamesmanship by delivering a crucial and controversial refereeing decision.While the original call angered the Canadians at the time, coach John Herdman applauded Wambach's "do-anything-to-win-matches" attitude on Tuesday.
It was no secret Canada's strategy against the deeper, more talented Americans was to slow the game down. That included, Wambach said, having goalkeeper Erin McLeod hold the ball as long as possible, even over 15 seconds at times during the first half. Soccer rules say the goalkeeper must get rid of the ball within six seconds.
[ Photos: U.S. defeats Canada in Olympic semifinal ]
During the second half, with the U.S. frantically trying to speed up the game while attempting multiple comebacks, Wambach began running near referee Christiana Pedersen and counting off the seconds that McLeod held the ball. She said she often got to 10 and into even the teens.
"I wasn't yelling. I was just counting," Wambach revealed Tuesday during an interview at the team hotel. "Probably did it five to seven times."
The last time came in the 78th minute, with Canada trying to milk a 3-2 lead. McLeod made a save, and Wambach began counting again.
"I got to 10 seconds right next to the referee, and at 10 seconds she blew the whistle," Wambach said.
The call was for delay of game. There was confusion on the field, because it was an exceedingly rare decision. Not another American or Canadian player or coach remembers the call ever being made, let alone in such crucial moments of an international tournament.
Regardless, the result was an indirect kick for the Americans inside the Canadian box. That kick wound up hitting a Canadian defender's hand, which meant a penalty kick for the Americans.
Wambach stepped up to the spot in the 80th minute and drilled a low shot off the left post and into the net to tie the game. In the final minute of stoppage time in the last overtime session, the USA's Alex Morgan headed a cross past McLeod for the incredible game winner.
Canada fumed, both during and after the game. Canadian star Christine Sinclair went as far as to charge the referee with deciding before the game that she would do whatever it took to help the Americans win.
"We feel like we didn't lose," Sinclair said. "We feel like it was taken from us. It's a shame in a game like that, which is so important, that the ref decided the result before the game started."
McLeod, the goalkeeper, claimed she had the ball a far shorter time and the ref shouldn't have included the few seconds it took for her to get up off the ground. She also said she was never warned by Pedersen herself; she merely was given a general reminder about speeding up play from a linesman at halftime.
"We feel like we got robbed in this game," McLeod said.
Wambach disputes that, saying that after she started the counting routine Pedersen continually told McLeod to speed up play and McLeod would acknowledge it by raising her hand to the referee.
The more times Wambach counted, the more impossible it became for the referee to ignore the delays and thus not make the call.
"Yes it's uncharacteristic," Wambach said. "But the rules are the rules. You can say it's gamesmanship, you can say it's smart, but I'm a competitor. We needed to get a goal. They're trying to waste time; I'm trying to speed it up."
Wambach's teammates say that game awareness and brilliance is part of what makes her a superstar. The 5-foot-11 forward isn't just a physical presence with a knack for scoring – she has a goal in all five U.S. games in this tournament.
The 32-year-old veteran from Pittsford, N.Y., knows soccer, is constantly aware of how the game is developing around her, and is practically a coach on the field.
"You need to be aware of the game at all times," Morgan said. "And Abby was just making the ref aware."
Herdman, the Canadian coach, was asked about Wambach's admission and tipped his hat to the player. While he said his players can learn from her, he wouldn't ask them to do any counting in the future.
"If Abby has done that, good on her," Herdman said. "Wambach's a great player, she's a pro, she knows how to win matches. … She found a loophole. Our players can learn from that."
Wambach said she was ready for the delay tactics due to previous games with the Canadians in which they often attempted to stall. She recalled one game in which she claims there was a "planned 20-minute cramping their goalkeeper took."
So with their gold-medal chances hanging in the balance and every precious second meaning so much, the Americans' great talent figured out how to change the course of the game with her intelligence.
Wambach kept counting until it couldn't be ignored.
"I think making the referee aware of a situation, there is nothing wrong with that," Wambach said. "At the end of the day, the ref made the decision on her own."
And the U.S. used it to advance to Thursday's gold-medal game with Japan back in London.
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