Maintaining the standard.
Not surprisingly, offseason changes to the Freedom roster are limited and mostly involuntary. Chinese national team captain Pu Wei stays home to help prepare her team for the upcoming Women’s World Cup. Bai Jie is slow to arrive for reasons that are unclear at first but it eventually turns out that the Chinese government refuses to let her come to the US as a protest against the invasion of Iraq. On the other hand, former Chinese national team goalkeeper Gao Hong joins the Freedom from the New York Power, replacing Erin Fahey, who’s been cut. (She’s already over here, so the Chinese government can’t do much about it.) Though the ramifications for the Freedom in the long run are very positive (as shall be seen), the decision is baffling: Erin was a terrific #2, so there seemed little point in taking a gamble on Gao, who at one time was one of the best goalkeepers in the world but who is coming off a miserable, injury-ridden season with the Power. Still, perhaps she has enough left to be a solid backup to Siri.
Other changes: Ann Cook, Stephanie Rigamat, and Tracey Milburn have been waived, with Cookie going back to the CyberRays. Anne Makinen is traded to Philadelphia for a player who doesn’t even make the opening-day roster. Meanwhile, there are new faces to replace them. Jim Gabarra pushes to acquire two-time ACC player of the year Lori Lindsey from the San Diego Spirit, and finally succeeds with a draft-day trade. Our new internationals are Aussie Kelly Golebiowski, who’s been playing with the W-League Hampton Road Piranhas for several years already, and German national team defender Sandra Minnert, who’s in the same position Steffi Jones was last year, unable to join the team until her German club team is done with her in May. We’ll also get German forward Jennifer Meier later in the year, something that doesn’t happen right away because it’s not immediately clear early in the season that Bai Jie will definitely not be joining us.
The season begins on Saturday, April 5. The Freedom take a trip down to North Carolina to take on the defending champions. Last year they did so early and came away with a 2-1 comeback win. They do exactly the same again, possibly inspired by an in-your-face pregame ceremony where the Courage players receive their championship rings for beating the Freedom last year. The Freedom goals are credited to Abby Wambach, heading in a Mia Hamm free kick, and Mia herself, knocking in a left-footed shot from the left of goal.
The home opener is on April 12, and the Freedom defeat the New York Power easily, 3-1. Jacqui Little is the offensive heroine in this one, scoring two goals, one off an assist from Carrie Moore, the first time my girl has gone down in the scorebook in her WUSA career. Washington does not play their best, just well enough to win, but anyhow they set a WUSA record for consecutive regular season wins with six.
On April 19, the Freedom travel to San José to take on the CyberRays. The defense is severely tested as Washington gives up 19 corner kicks but still pitches a shutout. Goals come from an authoritative Mia Hamm penalty kick and Lori Lindsey’s first goal as a Freedom player, on a header off a service from Jacqui Little. The streak continues.
One week later, and Washington looks to be facing its biggest test of the season. Atlanta has picked up a dangerous Mexican forward in the offseason named Maribel Dominguez [who can still be described that way 13 years later, as demonstrated by her highlight-reel goal the other day], and Maribel has led the Beat to consecutive blowout wins of 5-0 and 6-0 – outrageous numbers for a league as competitive as the WUSA – to start off their season. Meanwhile, the game plan is complicated because the match is a doubleheader with a US women’s national team match against Canada, which will precede this game. So it’s not clear how many minutes the Freedom will get from their nationals. It starts badly as Atlanta is awarded a penalty kick in the 15th minute, but Siri Mullinix makes a huge save. After that, the Freedom defense rises to the occasion, challenging Atlanta at every opportunity, clogging lanes, keeping the Beat forwards in front of them, and disrupting their attacks. Finally, Maribel Dominguez breaks through in the 67th minute to give Atlanta the lead, but seconds later, Mia Hamm sends a cross into the front of the goalmouth. It bounces off a defender and goes to newcomer Kelly Golebiowski in the air, who volleys the ball from at least fifteen yards out past a lunging Briana Scurry. The Freedom lose their winning streak, but it still has to be counted as a moral victory.
On May 10, the Freedom return to their winning ways as they host the Philadelphia Charge. The Charge have been devastated by early injuries and by the loss of assistant coach Pia Sundhage, who is now the head coach in Boston. They aren’t they team they were, and it shows. The final score is 4-1, thanks largely to an Abby Wambach hat trick, the first of her WUSA career.
A week later, and it’s another struggling team coming to RFK, the Carolina Courage. I have a really bad feeling about this game. The Courage have also been hurt by injuries and are 0-4 on the season. However, they’ve always given us trouble at RFK, and once again we’re without our national teamers due to another competing friendly (remember, the 2003 Women’s World Cup is looming). The goalkeeper situation is particularly nightmarish: Siri Mullinix is up with the national team and Gao Hong has been cut without ever having played a minute for the team. The Freedom have signed former Canadian national team goalkeeper Nicci Wright, but she hasn’t received her work visa. (Nicci will go on to become the Freedom’s starting keeper in the post-WUSA era and today is their goalkeeper coach.) So the starting goalkeeper will be Erin Regan, who didn’t even sign with the Freedom until a few days before the season started. Courage forward Danielle Fotopoulos runs wild, scoring two goals and three assists as the Freedom lose by the same score they won by in the rout in Carolina last year, 5-2. It’s the worst loss ever for the Freedom, and it breaks their 14-game regular season unbeaten streak.
The Freedom get back on track on May 24 by beating the New York Power out on Long Island, 4-0. They’re still number one in the league, and Mia is the number-one scorer. Better yet, with only a third of the season played they’re already more than halfway to the playoffs with sixteen standings points where thirty has always been sufficient. But the Boston Breakers, finally living up to their talent under their new coach, are #2 in the league and coming to town on June 8.
Washington experiences a Noachian deluge the previous day, and the field at RFK is a soggy, muddy mess. You could blame the Freedom’s poor play on the turf if only the Breakers weren’t unaffected by it. The Freedom lose for the second time in three games, 3-1. Worse, there is a red card festival late. Skylar Little and the Breakers’ Angela Hucles get into a wrestling match and both are ejected. Then in stoppage time Abby Wambach runs into a Breakers’ player’s stretched-out leg just after she’s cleared a ball and earns a red card for that. The Freedom finish the match with nine players on the field. Oh, and I should mention that Sandra Minnert gets her first playing minutes for the Freedom in this match.
At this point the magic is clearly over, but what a run it has been. From June 1, 2002, to May 10, 2003, the Freedom played a regular season equivalent 21 games, winning 14, tying 5, and losing only 2. Washington gave up 3 goals only twice while scoring 3 or more 8 times. The Freedom were shut out only once (and even that wasn’t a loss) while shutting out the opposition 5 times. The only cause for dissatisfaction is that 1 of those 2 losses was the Founders’ Cup. And keep in mind that they’re not playing patsies (well, except maybe the New York Power, who had one of the most miserable seasons in sports history) but teams designed only a season before to be as evenly matched as possible. The irony is that right before the Boston game a scrapbook is given to the Freedom players that a bunch of us fans put together, expressing our appreciation to the players for how amazing the past year has been. I can’t help feeling that we jinxed them.
Three days later the Freedom go down to Carolina and lose there for the first time ever (and the first time Mia Hamm has lost in North Carolina at any level). Blame goes on both ends of the team, with the defense giving up three goals and the offense scoring none.
On June 22, the Freedom redeem themselves somewhat with a 2-2 tie against the CyberRays at home in RFK.
June 28 is the beginning of the team’s annual sprint, this year with 8 games in 29 days. The Freedom pretty much have to win 3 in order to be in playoff contention, while 5 would be even better. Tonight it’s a 1-0 loss in Atlanta, with the Freedom giving up a goal only 2 minutes in but then shutting down the Beat the rest of the way. July 3 is a 1-1 tie in Boston. Defensive midfielder Lindsay Stoecker is turning into an offensive threat with a goal tonight for a total of three for the season, behind only Mia and Abby. On the other hand, Emmy Barr injures her knee in the sixth minute and is gone for the season. Sandra Minnert will take her spot for most of the rest of the year.
The next game is one for the ages, though not exactly in a good way. Shortly before the July 9 game starts, a gullywasher of a thunderstorm visits East Capitol Street and turns RFK Stadium into RFK swamp. You’d think that would dampen the scoring, but if anything it does the opposite. In particular, the first goal can just about be credited to the conditions as a Charge defender attempts to clear a ball that’s sitting in one puddle but only manages to knock it into the next puddle about two yards away, where it sits up perfectly for Lindsay Stoecker to knock it in for her fourth goal. Later in the game, defender Jennifer Grubb makes a diving stop of a ball in the goalmouth while falling on her back and spinning in the muck, looking for all the world as if she’s showing off her breakdancing moves. Lori Lindsey puts the game away in the 73rd minute with a hard, low shot from 35-yards out that skids past a diving Melissa Moore and gives the Freedom a 4-2 win, their first in their last six games.
July 12, and it’s another shorthanded game in Atlanta with the nationals away. The Freedom hit two shots off the crossbar and one off the side post, and lose, 2-1. After accumulating 16 standing points in their first 7 matches, they’ve only added 5 in the middle 7. They need about another 9 to be assured of a playoff spot. They don’t get any on July 16, losing 2-1 to the San Diego Spirit, though it’s a tough setup going in: they have to fly across the country and then play at 10 pm east coast time. On July 19, though, they host the New York Power and win, 2-0, off two Abby Wambach goals. The Freedom play well for the first time in a long while.
Four days later, the Freedom play to a 2-2 tie in Boston. Jennifer Grubb scores a goal off a wicked shot from 35 yards out that sears in under the crossbar but over a leaping Karina LeBlanc. But then she bumps a breakaway Maren Meinert in the penalty box, and Kristine Lilly puts the kick away. Boston scored earlier as well, so the Freedom are losing late, but Mia takes a free kick from about 45 yards out and Abby heads it into the net to earn another tie in Boston.
July 26 brings what should have been a laugher at RFK, as Washington utterly dominates San Diego on the field and should probably have won 10-0. Both Abby and Mia have enough good chances to earn each a hat trick. Jennifer Grubb misses a penalty kick. Lori Lindsey has perhaps the most embarrassing finish of a night of embarrassing finishes when she receives a perfect centering pass to her forehead and proceeds to knock the ball downward in textbook form, except she does it so far downward – and the ground is so hard – that it bounces over the goal instead of in. But the Freedom win, 2-0, Abby and Mia each scoring a goal, and are clinging on to second place in the standings. It’s been nothing like last year’s sprint, when they went 4-0-1, but they needed at least 9 points to stay in contention and got 11.
A week later, it’s August 2, and the results of other matches have put the Freedom in a position to clinch a playoff spot if they can beat the CyberRays this afternoon. Our two scoring threats make sure there’s no doubt: Mia Hamm gets a hat trick in the first 55 minutes, then Abby Wambach, who already has two assists on Mia’s goals, scores twice herself. The defense shuts down the CyberRays, and the Freedom have a 5-0 win, the most dominating in their history, and are in the playoffs. After a miserable 1-4-2 stretch, they recover enough to go 3-0-1. Are they back to their old selves again?
The next two matches will determine where they finish, but both are on the road. The first is on August 6 against the Charge, a team recovering from its injuries and looking to play spoiler after last year’s semifinal loss. Though another bunch of us ride the bus for the game, it’s a wasted effort as the Freedom lose, 2-0. Then the Freedom have to fly out to San Diego and play the Spirit, who are also playoff bound. In a match for the meaningless difference between third and fourth place, the Freedom lose, 2-1.
Boston wins their last game of the season while Atlanta ties. This gives the Breakers not only their first playoff appearance but the regular season championship. The thugettes are in second. In third is the San Diego Spirit, another team in the playoffs for the first time. (As it turns out, every WUSA team makes the playoffs at least once.)
I’m not at all hopeful about the postseason. Boston’s been the best team in the league ever since Washington faltered, and we have to play them at home, where the Freedom have never won. And even if we do win, we go out to San Diego’s Torero Stadium, where we either have the Spirit in their home stadium or Atlanta, a team we’ve lost to every single time we’ve played them outside of RFK. A bunch of fans plan a road trip to Boston, but I bow out, not wanting to drive so far and be disappointed as I so recently was in Philadelphia. Instead, I join a Freedom-sponsored viewing party at a bar in downtown DC.
It’s a hard-fought, defensive match. The Freedom defense has a stellar day, with Skylar Little in particular stripping Kristine Lilly of the ball on several occasions. However, while the defense handles the Breakers triple threat of Lilly, Mellgren, and Meinert, French import Stephanie Mugneret-Beghe gives the team fits until Mia Hamm turns defensive midfielder and shuts her down. Unfortunately, with Mia doing defensive duties there’s not much of a Freedom attack. The game ends regulation in a scoreless tie, and two fifteen-minute overtime periods don’t bring any scoring, either. It comes down to penalty kicks. Now I’m finally confident. We have the offensive weapons to score and a brilliant goalkeeper.
Boston starts off with their best players, but Maren Meinert misses high while Jenni Meier makes hers. Then Siri makes a save on Kristine Lilly’s attempt, while Jacqui Little puts hers away. Dagny Mellgren keeps the Breakers in it with a perfect kick that Siri nevertheless reads but just can’t reach. Mia Hamm makes hers, and it’s down to a limping Heather Aldama to keep Boston in it. She gets off a weak shot that Siri blocks, and the Freedom are on their way to the Founders Cup for the second year in a row.
The foe will be the hated Atlanta Beat, who come back to win against the San Diego Spirit in overtime. Much as I dislike the Beat, they are undoubtedly the most successful team in the WUSA, the only team to make the playoffs all three years, though losing on penalty kicks the first year and to the eventual champions in overtime in the semifinal round the second. You’d think they were due. All the signs are for a tight, hard-fought game: every playoff game in WUSA history has been decided by a single goal or by PKs, every playoff game Atlanta has played in has gone to overtime, every game between Washington and Atlanta has either been a tie or decided by a single goal, and six times the goal was scored in the 80th minute or later. And the last time Washington and Atlanta played in a game with playoff significance is generally considered to be the best match in WUSA history.
The Freedom came out strong and scored the first goal early, off a perfect Sandra Minnert feed that Abby Wambach finished to perfection. They continued to play well and had numerous additional chances for the rest of the half but failed to put the ball in the net, partially due to Briana Scurry’s saves but also due to poor finishing. I worried at that point that their problems in that area would come back to haunt them again.
My worries seemed realized when the referee called a penalty kick on what appeared to be marginal contact between Jacqui Little and Leslie Gaston. I had hopes that Siri would pull off yet another huge save, but she was completely fooled by Charmaine Hooper, and, despite the Freedom’s domination, the game went into halftime as a 1-1 draw.
It was Atlanta’s turn to control play in the second half, and it was another “bend but don’t break” effort by the Freedom, who allowed the Beat significant play in the midfield but few shots on goal. And what shots there were ended up in Siri’s hands.
Overtime was a different story altogether, as the Freedom came out on fire. The Beat had one weapon left in their arsenal, but a long shot from Maribel Dominguez went just wide – a scary moment because the shot would have beaten Siri if it had made the top right corner. After that, though, it was all Freedom, who used direct balls to challenge the Beat defense.
The first near-miss, surprisingly enough, was instigated by Carrie, who sent a long ball out in front of Abby. This resulted in a footrace between Abby and Nancy Augustiniak, where Nancy finally attempted to slide tackle the ball but ended up getting no ball and all Abby. Since she was the last defender on a clear goal-scoring opportunity, this resulted in a red card. It was an ignominious end to Nancy’s day, a shame because she was arguably the best overall player on the field, with her tenacious defending keeping Abby from being dangerous for much of the match. Mia took the free kick that followed, but bounced it off the crossbar.
But the game would not go on much longer. Atlanta brought the ball in and looked briefly dangerous, but Casey Zimny came up on Homare Sawa from behind and stripped her of the ball. She got it to Skylar Little, who got it to Jacqui, who sent a long ball in front of Jenni and behind an Atlanta midfield and defense caught flatfooted. Jenni raced toward goal with only Kylie Bivens and Briana Scurry in front of her, while Mia and Abby were alongside her. She sent a perfect cross pass to Abby. With Kylie caught in no-man’s land and Briana unable to change position, Abby knocked a perfect ball into the net for the victory, then turned to flatten Mia in celebration.
The Freedom held a victory celebration a few days later at RFK, and many of us fans joined in. The nationals weren’t there, though, already off training for the World Cup that would be starting the next month.
At the time, I was disappointed in the 2003 season, but looking at it now it doesn’t seem so bad. If the Freedom had won their last two matches (after clinching a playoff spot) instead of losing them, their record would be basically the same as the previous year. The biggest difference is that in 2002 the team started badly but finished well, while in 2003 they started well, slumped badly in the middle, then recovered in time to make the playoffs and then win twice.
As for individual performers, Mia Hamm finishes with 11 goals and 11 assists for 33 points, most in the WUSA. Abby has 13 goals and 6 assists for 32 points, second in the league. They also have 4 game-winning goals each, tied with two other players for the WUSA lead. Each get a hat trick during the course of the season. (Someday people are going to look back at the Freedom, see that we had the two top-scoring players in the history of women’s international soccer, and wonder how we ever lost a game.) On the defensive side, Carrie Moore, benchwarmer no more, plays every minute of every game. Jennifer Grubb does likewise, along with only two other players. In fact, Jennifer “iron woman” Grubb plays every minute of every game, period: 2001, 2002, 2003, playoffs, if the Freedom are playing, she’s on the field.
Sadly, it’s a record that will not be extended as, a month later and during the Women’s World Cup, it’s announced that the WUSA is shutting down, having spent all of the sponsors’ money intended for five seasons in three and unable to persuade them to provide more. The Freedom players I run into at the RFK WWC matches are “it was fun while it lasted” philosophical. But, surprisingly enough, it’s not the end of the line for the Washington Freedom.
Next time: The Freedom take up barnstorming.