A History of the Washington Freedom. Part Four: 2002 Late.

Finishing strong

The league-leading Philadelphia Charge, who have only been beaten once so far this season, come visiting on July 14. They’ve shrugged off the loss of their superb midfielder, Kelly Smith, as French speedster Marinette Pichon has taken the team on her shoulders. In June, Pichon scored six goals in five games, adding to her total of twelve for the season, and is coming off a hat trick in Philly’s previous match. So guess what Carrie Moore’s job is for this game? That’s right, man-mark Marinette for 90 minutes and try to keep her from scoring.

 Marinette Pichon gets one of her few touches on the ball in the July 14 match.

Marinette Pichon gets one of her few touches on the ball in the July 14 match.

Meanwhile, Mia Hamm makes her first start of the season. She has an opportunity to give the Freedom the lead early, as Bai Jie is taken down in the penalty box in the 11th minute. But she misses the resulting kick. It’s not until the 75th minute that anyone scores, and it’s the Freedom, courtesy of Abby Wambach, who gets the ball from Steffi Jones on a corner kick from Mia Hamm and puts it away. Unfortunately, Casey Zimny – three minutes after coming into the game – commits an unnecessary foul on the Charge’s Zhao Lihong just outside the box, and Zhao puts the ensuing free kick in the net to tie the score. As for the the dangerous French forward, Carrie limits Marinette to one shot on goal the entire game, garnering effusive praise from all quarters, even the Charge’s head coach. She ends up third in the voting for WUSA Player of the Week, an award that invariably goes to the player who scored the most goals unless there’s a sensational goalkeeping performance that week – giving a defender any consideration is unheard of.

One week later, and the Freedom have to go to San José to play the defending champions in the start of a grueling series of five games in fifteen days. Both teams are without their US national teamers (of which Abby Wambach is now one, thanks in large part to her performance with the Freedom) due to a poorly-timed friendly. Both are also fighting for a playoff spot, with each needing four more wins out of their six remaining games to be assured of getting in. Ironically, the CyberRays’ goalkeeper is now Dawn Greathouse, who was picked up when the Freedom had to put her on the waiver list before making her the reserve goalkeeper again. More irony occurs when both traded Freedom players, French and Pretinha, assist on a Sissi goal in the fifth minute. Then in the 39th minute Dawn trips Washington forward Bai Jie, and Jennifer Grubb puts away the ensuing penalty kick. Early in the second half, poor communication between the backup goalkeeper and defender Kelly Lindsey results in an own goal and gives the Freedom the lead. The game is put away in the 83rd minute when Jacqui Little draws the defense, then knocks the ball out to Monica Gerardo, who sends a seeing-eye ball into the lower left corner. San José’s Katia gets a goal in stoppage time, but it’s too little, too late. The Freedom win, 3-2, somehow managing to score three goals even without Abby and Mia.

Three days later the Freedom have to play again, this time Boston at RFK. They’re at full strength – though Mia is back to 45-minute stints for the rest of the season – but even so only manage one goal, as Wambach for the second time heads the ball in off a Pu Wei corner kick. Siri has another big game against Boston but this time lets one get by her early in the second half. It’s a tie in a game I was expecting the Freedom to win.

Another three days, another match. This time it’s San Diego coming to RFK as the second half of a doubleheader with DC United. It’s not a very good advertisement for women’s soccer, though, as the Freedom get only three shots on goal all game, with Wambach getting the one goal of the match off a nifty feed through the defense by Mia Hamm. The one play of the game, though, is a defensive one, as with Siri Mullinix out of position Jennifer Grubb slides across the goalmouth to clear a ball inches from the goal line.

Four days on take Washington down to SAS [now WakeMed] Park in North Carolina, where they face the second best team in the WUSA on their home turf. Last time they played the Courage won handily, 3-1, but this time they’re without their on-the-field leader Tiffany Roberts, who received a yellow card the previous week, then a second yellow card and ejection for complaining about the first one, and has to sit out this game as a result. I figure we need a Player of the Week performance from at least one of our forwards. Instead we get three: Bai Jie and Mia each score two goals, and Abby scores one goal and assists on three others. Her best play of the match is in fact one of the assists, as she beats coverage from two defenders well enough to slip the ball to Mia Hamm at the left post, who slides into the ball to knock it in. The result is all the more impressive considering that the Freedom were losing 2-1 at halftime.

Bai Jie alongside Mia Hamm at RFK Stadium

Bai Jie alongside Mia Hamm at RFK Stadium

August 4, a disgustingly hot and muggy day, and the Freedom play the Beat at RFK. There are only two games left in the season. Each team needs a win in order to clinch a playoff spot, and both are clearly intent on doing it today. It’s a game for the ages, a furious battle with momentum swinging back and forth several times, and at least two goal-of-the-year candidates. Atlanta dominates the first half but can only manage a 1-0 lead. Then Mia Hamm comes on and changes the whole complexion of the game. She gets the ball forty yards out but facing goal and charges down full throttle on three defenders, singlehandedly outracing the lot and sticking the ball in the net. The Freedom go ahead when Bai Jie, standing right on the end line, somehow manages to use her forehead to knock a Mia Hamm corner kick into the goal from an angle that defies all the laws of physics and mathematics – I mean, it isn’t even an angle, she’s even with the goalpost. But that doesn’t decide it: just two minutes later Cindy Parlow heads a goal at the other end to tie it. But the Freedom earn a corner kick with seconds remaining in stoppage time, and Pu Wei outleaps three Atlanta players to knock the Mia Hamm service in past a helpless Briana Scurry for her first WUSA goal. It’s sweet revenge for that stoppage time loss early in the season. And the Freedom are in the playoffs!

Pu Wei poses with several fans

Pu Wei poses with several fans

A few days later, Mia Hamm is named WUSA Player of the Week. Despite only playing two second halves, she’s scored three goals and three assists – possibly the most impressive 90 minutes of play in WUSA history [and women’s pro soccer altogether?].

The Freedom finish out the season by beating the Power, 4-2. Mia Hamm gets her eighth goal on a free kick and her sixth assist on a corner kick that’s sent in by Emmy Barr with help from Bai Jie.

The four teams in the playoffs are, in order, Carolina, Philadelphia, Washington, and Atlanta. Philadelphia had led the league almost the entire season but slumped late just enough to let the Courage slip by them. It’s a razor-thin margin, though, as Carolina has 40 points, Philadelphia 39, and Washington 38. You remember that tie with the Charge a few weeks ago, where Mia missed a penalty kick and Casey Zimny gave up a free kick that resulted in a goal? Well, if either one of those could have been avoided, the Freedom would have been regular season champions. As it is, they don’t even have a home match – the Freedom have to travel to the artificial turf of Villanova Stadium.

A few words about the competing teams: All right-thinking Freedom fans detested the Atlanta Beat for being a bunch of blood-letting thugs. The Courage we didn’t like because they always seemed to find a way to beat us in embarrassing ways. Most of us, though, had a lot of respect for the Charge, who were really the class team of the league. They’d been handed the weakest allocation of national team players (Lorrie Fair, Saskia Webber, and Mandy Clemens) but made up for it with solid coaching, contributions from unheralded but overachieving players, and shrewd signings of international players like the aforementioned Kelly Smith and Marinette Pichon. It might have helped that they had a brilliant assistant coach named Pia Sundhage, who went on to coach the US national team.

On the other hand, the Charge fans online, were, well, let me just say that so far as they were concerned their team could do no wrong, their coach Mark Krikorian was a genius, all of their players were practically perfect in every way, and they should just be handed the Founders Cup, no need to go through the messy and completely unnecessary business of requiring the Charge to prove that they were the best team in the history of history. So a lot of us really wanted the Freedom to win this game.

And we weren’t alone. The Freedom arranged a charter bus trip to the match, expecting to get maybe three or four bus loads. However, seven buses full of fans left RFK that Saturday morning, in addition to all those who drove themselves.

Have I mentioned games on hot days before? Well, this one was a whole ‘nother level. I am literally going numb from the heat, losing sensation in my lower arms. (It doesn’t help that the team asks us to wear blue to the game, and the only appropriately colored t-shirt I have is a very heavy one. On top of that, the Charge office has sold the visitors tickets to the sunniest part of the bleachers.) And the players are out there on artificial turf. During breaks they’re using their water bottles to squirt cool liquid on their feet as much as drinking from them.

Carrie Moore is once again given the thankless task of shutting down Marinette Pichon. She’s done it once – can she do it again? Well, yes, she can, with a lot of help. The Freedom play very defensively, focusing on keeping the Charge from scoring, and doing so successfully. Meanwhile, both Steffi Jones and Anne Makinen have shots that bounce off the crossbar in the first half. For 79 minutes, though, there’s no score.

But in the 80th minute, Mia Hamm sends in a corner kick. It’s half-cleared by the Philly defense but comes out to Pu Wei, who sends a high ball in to Jacqui Little just inside the right corner of the box. Jacqui drives to the baseline, fighting through two defenders, then turns and centers the ball out to an open Monica Gerardo, who hammers the ball past defender Heather Mitts and diving goalkeeper Melissa Moore. Marinette Pichon gets one shot on goal late, but Siri parries it easily. The Freedom become the first WUSA team to win a playoff game on the road, and they’re going to the Founders Cup!

Monica Gerardo, scorer of the only goal in the Freedom’s 2002 semifinal match

Monica Gerardo, scorer of the only goal in the Freedom’s 2002 semifinal match

After the game, the Freedom did something I’ve seen a few times in soccer but never from another WUSA team: they came over to applaud us fans. I am told later that the depth and breadth of their fan support, as exemplified in this match, is something the players remember for a very long time.

Unfortunately, the championship is in Atlanta, where the Freedom have had little success, and against the Carolina Courage, the team that gave the Freedom the most trouble during the regular season and who are still smarting from the 5-2 drubbing of several weeks ago. The Courage score early, but the Freedom tie it up on a free kick from Jennifer Grubb. At halftime, it’s tied, 1-1. Then, of course, it’s Mia time. However, the usual script doesn’t play out. Danielle Fotopoulos picks up a rebound and knocks it in for one goal, then Jennifer Grubb is careless with the ball and has it stolen by Birgit Prinz, who scores easily. But then Mia comes back with one of her patented let-me-near-the-box-and-I’ll-score spin-shoot-net goals. The Courage bunker down after that, and the Freedom mount a furious attack, with fifteen dangerous chances in the twenty-two minutes after Mia scores. Unfortunately, every shot goes high, wide, or right to the goalkeeper. Alas, the storybook season does not have a storybook ending. The Courage become the only team all season to outscore the Freedom when Mia Hamm is on the field, and they complete their own storybook season, going from worst to first and capturing the Founders Cup.

Still, the Freedom have put on a tremendous show, going into the Founders Cup with a ten-game undefeated streak and a five-game winning streak. They win the season series with every team except Philadelphia (and we know what happened there). Abby Wambach is a shoe-in for WUSA Rookie of the Year with the league’s first double-double, ten goals and ten assists. Mia Hamm plays a mere 505 minutes of the regular season (out of a possible 1890) but still ends up with eight goals and six assists, averaging 3.92 points every 90 minutes and a goal every 63 minutes. Steffi Jones didn’t make many highlight reels, but then you don’t want a defensive midfielder to do so. She was, however, a very stabilizing influence for the team. When she had the ball, I knew we were going to keep the ball and nothing unfortunate was going to happen – not at all a given based on our 2001 season.

As a team, they tie for the most goals scored and for the second-fewest goals allowed. The most impressive single statistic, though, might be that the team finishes the year with five comeback wins, in a sport where comebacks are rare and difficult – and this is the same team that fell apart in the first match of the season after giving up a goal.

Me and my girl and my sign (the star in the second "o" is the symbol of our shared hometown)

Me and my girl and my sign (the star in the second “o” is the symbol of our shared hometown)

As for my girl Carrie, who started the season as a backup if not a benchwarmer, she is invited to and plays in the first WUSA all-star game on Saturday, September 21, along with teammates Abby, Mia, and Jennifer Grubb. Together they help the South to a 6-1 win, with Abby scoring twice and being named the game’s MVP. Somehow I don’t find it too hard to get over the disappointment of losing the Founders Cup.

Next installment: Can the Freedom keep it going in 2003?

This entry was posted in Washington Freedom and tagged Abby Wambach, Bai Jie, Carrie Moore, Mia Hamm, Monica Gerardo, Pu Wei on by Kevin Parker.

Leave a Reply