Fifteen years ago, women’s professional soccer got its start in the nation’s capital. Seven years ago, with the second try getting underway, I wrote up the history of the Washington Freedom so far for the Women’s Professional Soccer fan website (now of course long defunct). With Jim Gabarra back at the helm of the Washington team, it seemed high time to dust the writeup off, add a few bits here and there, and make it available again. And if there’s enough interest (and I can find the time), I’ll bring it up-to-date.
We had Mia. Nothing else seemed to matter. San Diego may have had the best all-around threesome from the national team (Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett – both now in the Soccer Hall of Fame – and Shannon Macmillan, who probably ought to be), the CyberRays may have had sports-bra girl Brandi Chastain, but we had the marquee name in all of women’s sports, Mia Hamm.
Not that we didn’t have other talent. Our three internationals were Brazilians Roseli and Pretinha, considered two of Brazil’s most dangerous scoring threats, and Bai Jie from China, a blindingly fast defender-midfielder who’d been a major part of the tough 1999 Chinese World Cup team.
Homegrown talent (in addition to herself) included our other two allocated players from the national team pool, defender Michelle French and goalkeeper Siri Mullinix, 2000 Hermann Trophy (the women’s soccer equivalent to the Heisman Trophy) winner Anne Makinen, a midfielder, college all-American defender Lindsay Stoecker, Hermann Trophy finalist (and yet another defender) Jennifer Grubb, and sometime national teamer Amanda Cromwell, today the very successful head coach at UCLA. For that matter, pretty much every player had made some all-conference or all-American list somewhere, but then every other WUSA team could boast the same. It was enough for some sports analysts to predict that the Freedom would be the WUSA’s best team.
Preseason went promisingly. The Freedom won the WUSA Training Camp Championship Cup by compiling a 3-1 record against their fellow teams, then finished off with a 5-0 shellacking of the University of Maryland.
And the season started well – well, fairly well. Robert F. Kennedy Stadium rocked with 34,148 soccer fans – probably the all-time record for attendance at a women’s professional sports event – for the WUSA’s inaugural match, pitting the Freedom against sports-bra girl’s team. The play was fairly tentative, and if you had to pick a player of the match, it would be Washington goalkeeper Siri Mullinix for coolly protecting her net and producing a clean slate. But the CyberRays were also pitching a shutout, not making for much drama. However, late in the game, Brandi Chastain was called for a foul on Mia Hamm in the penalty area. Pretinha, the other Freedom forward, took the kick and made it, giving the Freedom a 1-0 in the first women’s professional soccer match in the US.
In their second match, the Freedom went down to Fetzer Field, home field for the North Carolina Tarheels, and won an exciting match against the Carolina Courage. They gave up a goal in the 8th minute and in the 15th minute Mia Hamm left the field with an MCL sprain. It took her 8 minutes to return and another 59 minutes for the Freedom to get on the board, off a Mia Hamm free kick redirected by Pretinha. Then in stoppage time the Freedom were awarded a direct free kick from 23 yards out that Mia put away for the game-winner.
The Freedom continued to do well through their first eight matches of the season, compiling a 4-2-2 record for a share of first place. Unfortunately, it was all downhill after that as the other WUSA teams began to surpass the Freedom in teamwork and execution, and things began to get ugly. And by ugly, I mean really ugly. Soccer blogger Beulah was moved by one match to prescribe some coursework for the team: Freedom 101 – My Teammates Wear Blue. Freedom 102 – And That Is Who I Pass To. Meanwhile, Mia Hamm was increasingly hobbled by a sore knee. Their record in the remaining 13 matches of the season was a dismal 2-10-1.
The season’s high spot for me occurred during a match at RFK on July 15. In the 40th minute, a young defender named Carrie Moore got into regular season play for the first time as a substitute for Emmy Barr. I reflexively checked the program to see what it said about her, and was astonished to find that she was from my home town of Roanoke, Virginia. I tracked her down after the match as she was signing autographs at the edge of the stands and had a brief chat with her while getting her autograph.
At the end of the season, the Freedom were ignominiously booted out of RFK Stadium to make room for the Washington Grand Prix. They played their final home game at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis. On a scorching hot day, they lost to the playoff-bound New York Power, 2-0. Mia Hamm was caught saying some very unladylike words to one of the linesmen on national television, and defender Skylar Little was ejected after receiving two yellow cards. On the other hand, Carrie Moore played a tough 90 minutes – her first complete game before the home fans and only the second overall – and was honored as the Freedom’s player of the match.
The Freedom finished the year with a 6-12-3 record, tied for worst in the league with the Carolina Courage, though missing the mixed blessing of being the worst team due to a better goal differential.
After the season, the Freedom held a Meet-the-Team event at the Dave & Busters at White Flint Mall. I dithered over going, in part because it required leaving work early, and I was pretty busy. However, I scrambled to get a respectable amount of work done and made my way there. I was glad to have done so, since I got to chat with numerous players, including Skylar Little, Amy Gray, and fellow computer programmer Keri Sarver. And of course I caught up with my girl Carrie. We compared notes on just how close together in Roanoke we were. Same high school? Check, but Roanoke only has two high schools. Same middle school? Yes, a little more interesting, but there are still only six of those. Same elementary school? Holy cow! I later worked out that the houses we grew up in (at different times, of course) were about six blocks away from each other. So that was cool.
Next installment: The Freedom clean house and start to turn things around.