Abby Wambach hasn't forgotten the feeling of sending Mia Hamm and the rest of the Golden Girls of American soccer home as Olympic champions in 2004.
Eight years and scores of goals later Wambach, 32, finally understands the range of emotions Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy felt in Athens.
As the United States opens the 2012 Summer Olympics on Wednesday in Glasgow, Scotland, Wambach is witnessing the rise of the player who could someday supplant her as America's next scoring maestro.
Cal graduate Alex Morgan will make her Olympic debut alongside Wambach while enjoying a goal-scoring tear this year. She has 17 goals and eight assists in 15 matches to field comparisons with Hamm, perhaps the country's most revered women's player ever.
Morgan, 22, has many roads to travel to match Hamm's 158 international goals -- or Wambach's 138 scores.
But she has emerged as the face of the U.S. team after first drawing attention at the World Cup last summer as the team's youngest player. The reserve scored against France in the semifinals and again in the heart-wrenching defeat in the final. Now the Diamond Bar player is on the footsteps of stardom that only an Olympic stage can create.
"The way Alex Morgan has been playing lately not only gives her confidence but the entire team, including myself," coach Pia Sundhage said.
Wambach appreciates the situation after being the one to usher in the next generation of women
players after Athens.
The pairing with Morgan has rekindled nostalgia over the historic Olympic run in 2004 with Hamm as her partner.
"Mia and I complemented each other, and I think that's what Alex and I have now," Wambach said. "I've told her time and time again that when she scores a big goal that wins us the game."
The forwards play different styles but have developed a strong bond that has inspired both. As the years passed Wambach has become a dangerous target forward with immense accuracy in the air.
Having Morgan as a sidekick has made her more successful. Defenses no longer can focus solely on Wambach without risking Morgan slipping into the penalty box for a good chance to score.
The forward combination is but one of the striking changes Sundhage has implemented in the past year after the World Cup defeat to Japan. Another is the transformation of Stanford alum Kelley O'Hara as a left back.
O'Hara left Stanford in 2009 as one of the school's all-time leading offensive players but now is a defender.
"Some of the great defenders on this team have started as a forwards early in their careers and made their way to the back," defensive leader Christie Rampone said. "She's really coming into her own defensively and I think she's learning her role of connecting with the back line."
While Wambach, Morgan and the other goal scorers garner the most notice, America's streak of advancing to every gold-medal match since women's soccer began at the Atlanta Games could lie with defenders.
It won't be easy in a tournament analysts say might be the strongest in history. Japan is the Olympic favorite but Brazil, France and Sweden also are strong.
Another difference from last year's World Cup is the health of stellar goalkeeper Hope Solo. She was not herself in Germany while recovering from a severe shoulder injury. But Solo is feeling at her peak heading to the London Games.
Sundhage should learn a lot about Solo and her defense against France, whose strength lies with its attacking players.
"When they get comfortable with the ball they are unpredictable so the back four with the midfielders need to be compact and control the game," the coach said.
Sundhage welcomed the chance to open the tournament against a team the United States defeated in the World Cup semifinals last year. She prefers a known quantity to playing North Korea, also in Group G with Colombia. The Koreans are difficult to scout because they don't play many big international matches. The United States plays North Korea in the final game of the first round July 31 in Manchester.
Wambach doesn't worry much about the scouting reports. The path to another gold medal is simple to the player who missed the 2008 Olympics after breaking her leg a month beforehand.
"There is no better motivation than losing," she said of the World Cup final. "I believe this team has something to prove."
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