July 25, 2008
By John Philip Wyllie
Two days prior to the August 8 official Olympic opening ceremonies the United States will kick off the competition against Norway with a women’s soccer match. Unfortunately, it will have to do so without several of its key players. Abby Wambach, the team’s leading scorer and most dominant player was injured here in San Diego on July 16 during a friendly against Brazil. She had to be carried off the field after breaking both her fibula and tibia. Wambach’s goal scoring ability, size and aggressiveness will be difficult to replace. So will her leadership abilities.
Joining her on the sidelines will be veteran defensive star and spiritual leader “Cat” Whitehill. Whitehill was felled by a torn ACL earlier this year just three weeks after mid-fielder Leslie Osborne succumbed to a similar injury.
One of the players that will help soften the blow of White-hill’s absence is defender Stephanie (Lopez) Cox the only Mexican-American player on the team. Last year Cox made history by being the first Hispanic American women to appear in a World Cup match. This year she has her sights set on bringing home the Gold.
“The biggest leader that I have seen step up so far spiritually is probably Stephanie Lopez,” said teammate Amy Rodriguez. “She’s been great. She gets us together for Bible study, calls everyone and leads us in prayer. She has been so strong and supportive ever since “Cat” was injured,” Rodriguez added.
“Cat has been on this team a long time and she has been a great leader,” Cox said. “Things have been changing and my role has fluctuated a lot in the past year. I started in the World Cup and then I had a very busy fall finishing my last college season and graduating (from the University of Portland). It all took its toll on me. I wasn’t quite at my peak when the new coaching staff came in. So at this point I am just seeing where God wants to take me with my role on this team. I’ll be coming off the bench and giving it my all in the moments that I get. My role as a defender is to not only limit the (offensive) chances of our opponents, but to give our team good chances to score.”
Playing in a tournament where several games are played in rapid succession depth is crucially important. Cox provides new U.S. coach Pia Sunhage with an experienced, battle-tested defender that she can plug in wherever she is needed.
“I think we are looking great because we have a lot of depth. Pia and our coaching staff has done a good job of integrating a lot of the subs on to the playing field. Everyone feels pretty comfortable heading in. Pia has high expectations for all the players. When you come on the field as a sub you are not there just to give the starters a breather, she expects you to make an impact.”
The competition in China will no doubt be stiff, but the physical demands of playing many matches in such a short time and under less than ideal circumstances will make this Olympics particularly challenging.
“A six game tournament is a long one especially since we don’t have many days off in between games. There are a lot of variables, but if you look at our training schedule this year we haven’t been very comfortable (in order to simulate conditions we’ll be finding in China). We’ve played in four international tournaments and made five international trips. We are getting over there early enough to get acclimated to the time change and the pollution I am sure the Chinese delegation will do a good job of taking care of us.”