- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2003

The Washington Freedom already guaranteed themselves a playoff spot. Now comes a shot at the Women’s United Soccer Association’s best record and a semifinal game at RFK Stadium.

The Freedom are just two points behind the Atlanta Beat and tied for second with the Boston Breakers with two games left. The league’s top two finishers play host to the first round of the playoffs Aug.16-17.

“We’ve got an opportunity to have home-field advantage and put pressure on Atlanta, but if we don’t take care of our game we can just expect to make the playoffs,” Freedom coach Jim Gabarra said. “A lot of interesting things can happen this week.”

The Freedom (9-6-4) take on the last-place Philadelphia Charge (4-11-4) tonight at Villanova (Pa.) Stadium and wrap up their season at the San Diego Spirit (7-6-7) on Saturday. The Spirit have the edge for the fourth playoff spot.

Like the Freedom, the Beat (9-4-6) and Breakers (8-4-7) clinched a playoff berth with Washington’s 5-0 victory over the San Jose CyberRays (7-9-3) on Saturday. The Beat are in San Jose tonight and need a win and a tie in their final two games to clinch home-field advantage. The Beat play host to the New York Power on Sunday in their season finale.

Of the three teams vying for the two home-field playoff spots, the Breakers appear to have the most difficult schedule. The Breakers play host to the always dangerous Carolina Courage (7-9-3) tonight and then travel to San Jose on Sunday to conclude their season.

The Freedom would get a home playoff game by winning their final two, assuming the Beat and Breakers, who both hold tiebreakers over the Freedom, also don’t win out. In the league’s first two seasons, home teams have gone 3-1 in the playoffs.

Before the Freedom can think of playing host to a playoff game for the first time, they must take care of the Charge. Philadelphia snapped a five-game losing streak with Saturday’s 3-0 win over the Beat.

Injuries decimated the Charge this season. Star forward Kelly Smith (one goal and one assist) went down with a knee injury and never regained form. Defender Heather Mitts missed four weeks with a broken leg but is back in the lineup. Athletic forward Deliah Arrington (one goal and one assist) tore an ACL and is out for the season.

The Freedom have two lopsided victories over the Charge this season, both at RFK. The Freedom beat Philadelphia 4-1 on May10 and 4-2 on July9. Freedom forward Abby Wambach, a leading candidate for league MVP, has scored five times this season against the Charge. Wambach is tied for first in the WUSA with Boston’s Dagny Mellgren with 13 goals and has 32 points.

“I think the key with Abby Wambach is to limit her service,” Charge coach Mark Krikorian said on the team’s Web site. “If we allow her to have the ball inside the penalty area, it’s playing with fire because sooner or later she is going to finish them.”

The Freedom have shut out three of their last four opponents, including San Diego and San Jose in their last two games, and goalkeeper Siri Mullinix has not allowed a goal in her last 201 minutes.

“You go through a lot of cycles in this league,” Gabarra said about his team’s defending. “When we started defending better, those goals that we gave up hurt. We’ve really tightened down a lot defensively.”

The Freedom will be without left-sided defender Sandra Minnert for the Freedom’s final two games because of German national team duty. Gabarra is leaning toward starting Casey Zimny in the back, though he is tempted to use a 3-5-2 alignment because the Charge’s only real threat is Marinette Pichon, who has 12 goals.

“She’s been a consistent goal scorer in this league for two years now,” Gabarra said. “If you’re looking to close that team down, you look to stop Pichon.”

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