Turning the corner
The magic begins on June 1, with Washington playing Boston in the spacious confines of CMGI Field (now Gillette Stadium). With top-level internationals Dagny Mellgren and Maren Meinert supported by midfielder Kristine Lilly, the Breakers are among the most dangerous offensive teams in the league. Unfortunately, the Freedom field players don’t rise to the occasion, repeatedly letting Boston get dangerous, unchallenged shots on goal. But goalkeeper Siri Mullinix is up to the challenge, putting on a stunning performance, parrying shot after shot, including some one-on-ones, making 13 saves in all, a WUSA record. She preserves a 0-0 tie in a game the Freedom otherwise had no business being competitive in.
June 8, and it’s the league-leading Philadelphia Charge on the road. The Charge have just lost their best player, Kelly Smith, to injury, however, and are off their form. Washington, with Steffi Jones joining the lineup, leads most of the way after a successful penalty kick from Jennifer Grubb in the 40th minute, but the Freedom give the Charge’s dangerous forward, Marinette Pichon (remember this name), a little too much room a little too close to the goal late, and she scores in the 87th minute to knot the match up.
The big day has arrived. It’s June 12, and tonight Mia Hamm will return to the field for the first time in 2002. The Freedom give up a goal in the fourth minute to Dagny Mellgren, then tie it up at the end of the first half off some determined play from Jacqui Little, who steals the ball from the midst of three Boston players, brings it down the left flank to the top of the box, slides it to Anne Makinen, who one-touches a pinpoint pass through most of the Boston defense to Abby Wambach, who nutmegs Kate Sobrero (now Markgraf) for the tying goal. Meanwhile, Casey Zimny injures her leg early in the game, and Carrie comes on to replace her.
Okay, now here’s a script idea: the old veteran, injured and thought by some to be washed-up, comes into the game with a taped-up knee when her team desperately needs a win. Just a few minutes later, she takes on the opponent’s hot young rookie one-on-one and beats her for the game-winning goal. You couldn’t get away with that as fiction. It has to be real.
65th minute. With a play stoppage, Jacqui Little checks out and Mia Hamm checks in, taped-up knee and all. The crowd perks up, wondering how long it will take her to make an impact. The answer is seven minutes.
72nd minute. Abby feeds Mia down the left flank. She takes the ball into the box and shoots. The rebound comes back to her as the Breakers top draft pick, Jena Kluegel, moves to cover. Mia slides the ball toward the left front corner of the box, then shoots again, threading the ball between Jena and another defender and past goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc for the game-winning goal. The crowd goes insane. Dave Johnson, the play-by-play announcer, exults, “It’s in the net! Mia Hamm is back!” All color commentator Lori Walker can say is, “You have got to be kidding me!”
The San Diego Spirit come to visit on June 15. The Freedom dominate the first half, then in the second half look like a team that has played three games in eight days. But Siri Mullinix and the defense do well, while the offense scores four times for the most dominating performance yet, though a couple of the goals come late on counterattacks when San Diego is overextended forward trying to mount a comeback. Abby gets her fifth and sixth goals of the season, along with her fourth assist, while Mia gets her second goal on a penalty kick and her first assist on a goal by Anne Makinen. Abby’s first goal is what will become a trademark play for her, heading in a corner kick, this one being served by Pu Wei. My girl Carrie puts in another 90 minutes, her sixth complete game already. The only bad news is that late in the first half stalwart defensive midfielder Lindsay Stoecker tears her ACL and is done for the season.
A week later, it’s the much-improved Carolina Courage who visit RFK and down the Freedom, as they generally seem to do anywhere outside of North Carolina. Carolina has two large, dangerous forwards up front in US national teamer Danielle Fotopoulos and German national teamer – and eventual multiple FIFA Player of the Year winner – Birgit Prinz. But their heroine on the day is unheralded Venus James, who scores two goals, with Prinz adding a third in the 67th minute. The Freedom answer back in the 76th minute as Abby heads a ball beautifully through a seam in the defense and to the feet of Bai Jie, who takes a shot that rebounds, then collects the rebound and scores. Already several times Abby’s been denied credit for an assist just because the eventual goal scorer doesn’t get it in on the first try. Meanwhile, Carrie goes yet another full game. Also, one development occurs that will eventually have momentous import for the team: Carrie and team captain Jennifer Grubb – the two central defenders – consult during the game and decide that Birgit Prinz is too dangerous to be left alone at any time, so Carrie will man-mark Prinz for the rest of the game.
In late June, the Freedom go up to Mitchel Field out on Long Island to play the Power, who have continued to deteriorate even as the Freedom improve. They win easily, 4-1. Mia Hamm, only up for playing 45 minutes a game, is in a supersub role, coming on for the second half in place of Bai Jie. She still manages to score two goals, one in which she just hammers the ball at New York goalkeeper Gao Hong three straight times until it finally gets past her. The bad news is that Siri Mullinix breaks her hand late in the first half. Backup goalkeeper Erin Fahey takes over. Once again Carrie is assigned to shadow the opponent’s best player, and she successfully shuts down forward Tiffeny Milbrett.
The Beat come to town on Independence Day Eve. So far Washington has played Atlanta four times and lost four times, but the Freedom are not the team they were. It doesn’t look good in the eighth minute, though, as the Beat are awarded a penalty kick after Jennifer Grubb grabs forward Charmaine Hooper’s jersey in the penalty area. Erin Fahey makes the save, though, giving the team a huge boost, and they play like world-beaters for the rest of the first half, even without Mia Hamm in the lineup. Three minutes on, Pu Wei is fouled just outside the box. Anne Makinen steps up to take the free kick. Tall flank defender Emmy Barr* loops around from behind Makinen upfield and then slips into the goalmouth unmarked. Anne finds her with a perfectly aimed ball that Emmy heads into the net. Eight minutes later, Emmy figures in the scoring again as she gets a beautiful backheel from Abby Wambach as she runs down the left flank. She then centers the ball to Bai Jie at the right post, who snaps a header in to give the Freedom a 2-0 lead. Carrie is man-marking Charmaine Hooper this time around and gets an elbow to the cheekbone from the physical striker that draws blood. Normally mild-mannered coach Gabarra is ejected for complaining about Atlanta’s unpunished physical play. The Freedom give up an own goal late, but they still leave RFK with their first-ever victory over Atlanta.
The 21-game season is now two-thirds over. The Freedom have gone 4-1-2 in their last seven games and vaulted from a tie for last to third place. They’ve also accumulated as many standings points (21) so far this season as they did all of last season. But will the turnaround hold?
*If you want to keep track of the Freedom defenders’ names during this era, you just have to remember that you’d like a Little Moore Grubb from the Barr.
Next time: Finishing strong