- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 13, 2002

The Washington Freedom enter year two hoping last season's nightmare won't be repeated.

The Freedom were the biggest disappointment of the Women's United Soccer Association's first year. Predicted by many to win the WUSA championship, they finished tied for last despite featuring forward Mia Hamm, the greatest star in the history of women's soccer.

A busy offseason saw the Freedom basically clean house. Washington traded ineffective Brazilian forward Pretinha and underachieving midfielder Michelle French to San Jose. Coach Jim Gabarra released nearly his entire bench. Ten players are gone from last season's 6-12-3 team.

The team drafted wisely and added two international stars, Chinese midfielder Pu Wei and German defender Steffi Jones. But will all the changes make the Freedom competitive this season?

"I just look at it as a learning experience," Gabarra said of last season. "We're not doing our job if we don't learn and adapt and make the changes that we see are necessary. I think personnel-wise, we did everything we could in that area. What we're trying to do now is do a little more teaching and coaching rather than evaluating. Last year we were constantly evaluating and trying to find solutions to our season."

Unfortunately, the Freedom open their second season tonight against the New York Power at RFK Stadium without Hamm, who underwent offseason knee surgery. The club indicated she won't return to until possibly a May 18 game against the Carolina Courage at RFK.

If that is indeed the case, Hamm, the Freedom's leading goal scorer (six) and points producer (16) from last season, will miss the first five games, three of which are on the road.

Hamm, a Lake Braddock High School graduate, struggled last season playing with a bad shoulder and knee. Plus, Gabarra was forced to play her in various midfield roles that took away from what Hamm does best scoring goals.

"We are hoping there is a different ending to this story this year," said Hamm, who was named FIFA's women's player of the year. "Certain aspects of my game picked up playing attacking midfield. We have so many central midfielders three real good playmaking midfielders I don't need to play that position."

That alone should boost the Freedom's goal-scoring production from a league-low 26 a year ago. Another lift should come from rookie forward Abby Wambach, the Freedom's first-round draft pick and the second player chosen overall. Wambach, a 5-foot-10 striker out of Florida, was the NCAA's leading scorer last season and could be a towering presence on the Freedom's forward line.

"[The coaches] expectations for me scoring goals isn't very high just because they don't want to put that pressure on me, but I put pressure on myself," Wambach said. "The team didn't score goals, I'm here that's what I do."

Gabarra also has reconfigured his defensive backline. Lindsay Stoecker moves to a defensive midfield position from the central defender role she played all last season. Jen Grubb, who was the Freedom's best player last season, replaces Stoecker as a central defender and vacates her defensive midfield role.

Rookie Casey Zimny, the Freedom's second-round draft pick out of Connecticut, was expected to start centrally alongside Grubb but underwent emergency surgery Thursday for a ruptured ovarian cyst and will sit out tonight's game. Zimny is expected to be out two weeks and is penciled in to start until Jones arrives in May after her German season concludes. Carrie Moore, who started just two games last season, will start at right back and Emmy Barr on the left.

Pu, 21, joins Anne Makinen in an attacking midfield role this season. Pu started every game for China during the 1999 Women's World Cup and should help Makinen generate plenty of scoring chances. Versatile midfielder Monica Gerardo can play as an attacking midfielder or out on the wing. Bai Jie, a lightning fast winger, also can play various positions from striker to defender.

Perhaps the biggest key to the Freedom's success this season will be their goalkeepers. Dawn Greathouse, who was on the reserve team all of last season, makes her professional debut tonight. Siri Mullinix, the Freedom's top goalkeeper, is still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, and backup Erin Fahey is troubled by a hip flexor.

Only time will tell if the Freedom's offseason moves work. Almost any success will be an improvement over last season.

"No individual on this team has come from a losing program," Grubb said. "We all went to schools that won the majority of the time, if not close to every single game we stepped on a field. We're not completely focusing on [last season] to the point where all we want is revenge, but it's in the back of your mind. You don't want to come out and repeat the same kind of season that we had last year."

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