The National Women’s Soccer League’s (NWSL) Western New York Flash announced today that U.S. women’s national team star Abby Wambach will be sitting out the 2015 season to …. wait for it … prepare for this summer’s 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
This year’s World Cup, which will be hosted in Canada, runs from June 6 through July 5. According to Wambach, that is her priority.
“At this stage of my career, I know what I need to prepare mentally and physically for this summer. My sole focus is to help bring a World Cup back to the U.S.”
It’s a curious decision on its face, particularly without further insight into the choice. But there are some basic facts that we do know: At 34, Wambach has already featured in four World Cups, dating back to 2003. She’s played in two Olympic tournaments. In between, she’s logged a ton of minutes on the field, although not necessarily an obscene number of minutes when you take into account the stop-start nature of U.S. women’s leagues during her career.
Nevertheless, when you have a career as long as Wambach’s it takes a toll on the body. That’s the reality, and at some point, you have to start managing that toll, regardless of whether that management sits well with fans, other players, or team staff. They don’t live with you when the game is over.
We also know that if Wambach was a men’s player of equal pedigree, who was already comfortably assured a spot on a summer World Cup roster, there’s no way, barring injury, she could opt out of club ball to focus on a tournament over two months away. This is a point that’s been made multiple times on social media since the announcement.
But is a fair question? It’s certainly an obvious one, because it’s hard to imagine any major athlete in a team sport opting out of regular season play to focus on a tournament. For many athletes, playing consistently while slowly building intensity is the only way to mentally and physically prepare for future competitions. That’s how you get “match fit.”
But that also presumes that there’s one way to prepare. Many of the questions about her choice to walk away from the club season presumes that running your body through the competitive gauntlet of regular season competition is the avenue to peak preparation. But maybe that isn’t universally true for all athletes, at all ages, at all times. Maybe some people need time away. Sometimes people may need to get away to Cambodia for a few weeks to play pick up on a beach. Some people may need 90-180 high intensity minutes for a month to get to match fitness. It isn’t such a crazy thought: different people need different things and require different paths to get to the same place.
But maybe the place you’re trying to get to happens to be retirement, in which case the path may not go through one more NWSL season. Although people love to compare things, the realities of women’s professional soccer in the U.S. isn’t apples to apples with men’s soccer. Women professionals have been consistently run through the ringer at the U.S. club level. Leagues come and go. There’s very little stability. There’s no massive Champions League. There are no marquee televised league events. After dedicating your life and being on call for the various iterations of top-level leagues in the U.S., if you had to choose one final place to make your mark, that place may very reasonably be the Women’s World Cup — the primary global showcase for women’s soccer. And if that happened to be Wambach’s goal, it’s hard to question her assessment of how to get herself into peak condition for that run.
Ultimately, the questions about Wambach’s decision, arguably, aren’t even about Wambach, because her decision could very well come from a host of interconnected, complicated reasons that none of us are privy to. These questions are more about the application of so-called universal truths to actual living, breathing human beings who operate in a world more complex than “play more soccerz equalz prepared.”