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Abby Wambach has reason for World Cup single-mindedness

U.S. hasn't had a Women's World Cup title in 16 years

There are very few honors that have eluded Abby Wambach during her unparalleled soccer career.

World player of the year? She won that in 2012.

Olympic gold medals? Wambach's got two of them.

Records? Her 182 international goals are the most by any player, male or female, in history.

What she doesn't have is a World Cup title. With this year's tournament probably the last for Wambach, who turned 35 Tuesday, her family has begun appealing to a higher power for help.

"I'm praying for it," her mother Judy said hopefully. "I've got novenas going because I really want this to happen."

Wambach didn't say whether she's lit any candles in advance of the U.S. team's World Cup opener with Australia on Monday in Winnipeg. But she made it clear she's left very little else to chance.

"As you grow older, you start reminiscing more about these specific tournaments and how important they are personally," she said. "The World Cup is the focus right now. All of my mind and all of my body is set on the World Cup."

So tight is that focus that Wambach, unlike many of her teammates, decided not to play in the National Women's Soccer League this spring, harboring her energy and emotion for the World Cup. At first it was a controversial decision, one that so angered her team, the Western New York Flash, it traded her to the Seattle Reign.

But when U.S. teammates Ali Krieger (concussion) and Alex Morgan (knee) were injured while with their NWSL teams, Wambach's caution proved prescience.

"You never know," she said "if you're going to get another chance."

Wambach has already had three of those, reaching the semifinals in her first two World Cups, then coming tantalizing close to a championship four years ago when her goal in overtime put the U.S. ahead. But Japan rallied to tie before winning on penalty kicks, extending the Americans' title drought to 16 years.

Which is why Wambach is determined to make this one count.

"I want to finish my career off on a high note, play in this World Cup and bring home the World Cup to the United States," she said. "That would be absolutely a dream come true and a perfect way to end a career."

Wambach expected to be a part-time player in Canada — a concession to both her age and a grueling schedule that will require the World Cup finalists to play seven games in 30 days. But her role has grown after the injury to Morgan, whose status for the tournament remains uncertain.

And she's embraced it. In Morgan's absence, Wambach started twice and scored four of the team's eight goals on its three-game send-off tour. For the final World Cup tuneup Coach Jill Ellis also gave Wambach the captain's armband, acknowledging her importance extends beyond her ability to score.

"She is a force of nature in her leadership, her spirit," Ellis said. "She really is a player than galvanizes."

Or intimidates.

Ellis, an assistant coach with the 2012 Olympic team, remembers a livid Wambach storming into the locker room at halftime after the U.S. gave up two goals in the first 14 minutes in its opener against France.

"The players were like 'holy crap,'" said Ellis, who led the other coaches out of the room, leaving the team to Wambach. "When she talks, players listen. She inspires them. And I think they trust her.

"She conveys confidence and gives confidence."

Perspective too, because for the first time Wambach's life no longer revolves solely around soccer. In October 2013 she wed longtime partner and former teammate Sarah Huffman in a private ceremony in Hawaii and that has put Wambach more at ease.

"No matter who you are, how successful you are, you have to have a positive environment around you that keeps you balanced," Wambach said. "It's nice having somebody in your corner that doesn't look at you as a famous soccer star. They look at you as a person and they want to take care of you from a human perspective.

"No matter how successful anybody gets, they're still human beings and they still need to take out the trash."

Or, in some cases, trash World Cup fields. Wambach doesn't have to be reminded that, after winning two of the first three tournaments behind Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain, the U.S. is 0 for 3 since Wambach joined the team.

The reasons for that have little to do with any one player. The World Cup field has doubled in size since Hamm's early days, for example, and the quality of the competition has improved tenfold.

The lack of a title is still a big hole on Wambach's resume, though.

"Abby would say that she'd get rid of all [her] records to win the World Cup," said Cat Whitehill, who played alongside Wambach in two World Cups before becoming a Fox Sports analyst. "But she's one of the best players ever. You look at players out there like [Lionel] Messi, who never won a World Cup. It doesn't tarnish his legacy.

"Would it be a disappointment? Yeah, obviously. Because that's what your goal is and you dream of winning a World Cup."

Foudy agrees. After a spectacular 15-year career, a World Cup title would just be the icing on the cake for Wambach.

"If you look back, they're going to talk about her goal scoring. And her longevity. And her dominance. And the fact that she's just this giant of the game," said Foudy, a member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame. "The first thing that people talk about will not be — if she doesn't win this summer — that she never won a World Cup.

"But that will be the first thing she'll talk about. When you talk to Abby, she says, 'It's everything to me.' Because it is the pinnacle of soccer."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: @kbaxter11

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