- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 17, 2002

Back in June, the Washington Freedom were floundering in seventh place of the eight-team Women's United Soccer Association and appeared destined to repeat last season's tied-for-last finish.
The club went 2-4-2 in its first eight games. Then came an influx of good players. The arrival of German midfielder Steffi Jones coincided with the healthy returns of forwards Mia Hamm and Bai Jie and goalkeeper Siri Mullinix. The additional players propelled the Freedom to their first playoff spot with a 9-1-3 ending run.
Today when the Freedom (11-5-5) face the second-place Philadelphia Charge (11-4-6) at Villanova Stadium in one playoff semifinal, the hottest team in the WUSA will be looking to extend its nine-game unbeaten streak (7-0-2), the longest active streak in the league.
Jones, a defensive midfielder, has been a stabilizing force for the Freedom. Balls aren't lost, they're won with Jones in the middle.
Coach Jim Gabarra is hesitant to heap all the praise on Jones, but it's no coincidence the Freedom started winning as soon as she put on a Freedom uniform. The Freedom outscored opponents 32-17 with Jones on the field and were outscored 12-8 without her.
"It's got to be [Jones], but it's pretty close with Siri coming back as well, and Bai Jie and then Mia coming in," Gabarra said of his team's turnaround. "I don't think it's one thing, but if you had to pick one, the stats support that one [Jones]."
Hamm's return also played a key role in the Freedom's turnaround. Her first game back after knee surgery was June 12, four days after Jones made her debut. Against the Boston Breakers, Hamm entered in the 65th minute and scored the game-winning goal in the 72nd.
Hamm, the world's leading all-time goal scorer, had eight goals and six assists in 11 games a little over half a season as a reserve. Despite her limited playing time, she scored three game-winning goals (third-best in WUSA this season).
In Week 17, Hamm was named WUSA Player of the Week when she scored three goals and had three assists in a pair of victories. In the last four games of the season, Hamm scored four of her eight goals and assisted on five others while playing only the second halves.
"The team is playing well and with a lot of confidence, and that's what you want going into a semifinal game," Hamm said.
Heading into today's semifinal, the Freedom are at full strength. And what makes this game so significant, is that the Freedom is facing the league's best defensive team. The Charge allowed only 22 goals all season and lost just once at home.
"It's been a combination of all the injured players coming back healthy," said Mullinix, who finished first in WUSA in save percentage (80.8) and was second in goals-against average with 1.19. "I came back, Steffi came in, and Mia was getting healthy, practicing and playing really well. Looking back to last year, it's been such a good season."


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