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Wambach, U.S. have attention of UF soccer coach

American soccer star Abby Wambach led the Gators to their only national title in her freshman season in 1998. She seeks a World Cup title today. (Photo by The Associated Press)

Published: Sunday, July 17, 2011 at 8:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, July 17, 2011 at 12:17 a.m.

In 1997, Florida soccer coach Becky Burleigh received a program-changing commitment from a Rochester, N.Y., high school senior named Abby Wambach. Today, Burleigh is still hoping to find the next Wambach.

The 5-foot, 11-inch forward was the nation's top recruit that year. She quickly yielded dividends, bringing UF its only national title in her freshman year. More than a dozen years later, she's become a household name as the star of a U.S. national team looking to capture its first World Cup title since 1999, Wambach's sophomore year at Florida.

Burleigh will be off the clock for a few hours during a recruiting trip and will be one of the expected millions to watch when the Americans take on Japan.




“(Wambach) was talented before she even came to Florida,” Burleigh said. “She's just a physically dominating player. There's not a better player in the air than Abby in the entire world. I think she's grown in her abilities as a leader and a player. When a player doesn't peak in college, it's really nice to see.”

While the casual soccer fan may not pick the U.S. and Japan out of a lineup of world soccer powerhouses, both proved worthy of their placement during tournament play. The U.S. had its signature moment in a victory on penalty kicks over Brazil that was sparked by several controversial penalty calls. Japan shocked the soccer-loving world with upset wins over Sweden and host Germany. Both teams did it in different ways.

“The Japanese team is terrific,” Burleigh said. “They are really, really disciplined. They are very precise in their technical ability. It's going to be a hard matchup. It's two contrasting styles; we're more physical and they're more technical.”

When the Americans claimed the Cup in 1999, interest in the sport swept the country and sparked a number of women's professional leagues. While some folded, others merged and are home base for several of the national team's brightest stars, including Wambach and goal keeper Hope Solo, who are teammates on the magicJack club in the Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) league.

What is certain is that, win or lose, the team is coming home to a country a little different than when they left it.

“I feel like some of these girls are becoming mainstream stars instead of just soccer stars, which is exciting,” Burleigh said.

But much like '99, when the finals between America and China drew a larger U.S. television audience than any of the NBA or NHL finals games that year, today's championship is expected to be a nail-biter. While the U.S. needed penalty kicks to defeat the Chinese, some are predicting a similar outcome with Japan, including Burleigh.

“I think it's going to be an epic game,” she said.

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