Mia Hamm is no longer scoring goals for the U.S. women’s soccer team. Instead, she’s giving neighborly assists.

Hamm and rising star Abby Wambach recently moved within a couple of miles of each other in California. To hear Wambach tell it, Hamm in retirement sounds like the kid down the street who wants you to come out and play.

“She calls and asks, If you need me to cross balls into you, whatever you need me to do, I’m willing to help you out,”‘ Wambach said.

Behind-the-scenes friendships aside, the U.S. women this year are adjusting to life without their most recognizable faces. Hamm and two other longtime stars – captain Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett -retired from the national team at the end of 2004, launching a new era of competitive and marketing challenges. Will the fans remain loyal even when they can’t scream “MEEEE-ah!” for an autograph after games? And will the next generation of players keep the U.S. on top in an increasingly competitive women’s soccer world?

“Everybody that follows the U.S. women’s national team knew that at some point there was going to be a major transition. This is it,” said coach Greg Ryan, a former assistant who was promoted after April Heinrichs resigned earlier this year. “And like many transitions, it’s going to take time for this new team to jell.”

The team has been training this week in Portland, Ore., for an exhibition game Sunday against Ukraine, the second leg of a low-key summer tour. The first game – which was also the first game on U.S. soil in the post-Hamm era – drew just 3,215 die-hard fans decked in colorful ponchos on a rainy day in Virginia Beach, Va., two weeks ago. The U.S. team beat Canada 3-0.

“It’s definitely strange,” forward Tiffeny Milbrett said, “because I think this is the first time this team has gone through a major, major transition. Even the public’s going through this transition.”

As much as she liked to say that she was just a part of a team, Hamm was clearly top of the pyramid, the focus of fans, media and opponents for more than a decade. She was both telegenic and talented on levels that may never be equaled in the sport. A new fan favorite will emerge – probably Wambach, who is scoring goals at a record pace – but there will never been another Hamm.

“The difference here, going forward, is that no one person is going to have to have such a big role,” Milbrett said.

“Fans are going to be there no matter what,” added midfielder Shannon Boxx. “Obviously they love Mia and they miss her, but we have players coming up. Abby Wambach – kids are going to be screaming her name now.”

Beyond the loyal fans, however, women’s soccer has become like track and field and gymnastics, sports that get widespread attention only during the Olympics and perhaps during their respective world championships. The women’s soccer league, the WUSA, folded after three years – even with Hamm on the field.

Wambach is optimistic the league will return, this time with a better business plan.

“We’re letting the soccer people play soccer, and we’ve put business people in the business decision-making roles,” Wambach said. “That’s the only way leagues like this can survive. If you’re too emotionally invested in something, it’s hard to make right business decisions.”

Competitively, the team appears as strong as ever. The U.S. won the prestigious Algarve Cup in Portugal in March without allowing a goal. Youngsters such as Wambach, Heather O’Reilly, Heather Mitts, Cat Reddick and Christie Welsh should keep the team strong through the 2007 World Cup and the 2008 Olympics, both in China.

“The U.S. is a team that goes out to win,” Boxx said. “We don’t ever say, Oh, we’re not that great right now; we’re going to settle for third or second.”‘

Meanwhile, the old guard will be watching from the sidelines – or the broadcast booth. Foudy is doing television commentary, although she got off to a rocky start. While reporting before the Canada game, she kept referring to the team as “we.”

“We’d have to do take after take after take,” Wambach said, laughing. “She’s like, I’m no longer on the team. This is kind of an odd feeling.”‘

It’s the same odd feeling the fans have when they go to a game knowing that Hamm’s No. 9 won’t be in the lineup.

“Mia, Julie and Joy, they pioneered this game in this country – they made this game known to most Americans,” Wambach said. “It’s a responsibility of the players that are left on this team to continue that growth.”

Associated Press writer Sue Lindsey in Norfolk, Va., contributed to this report.

AP-ES-07-06-05 1552EDT

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