- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Mia Hamm, the greatest player in women's soccer history, again will be on the bench at the start of the biggest game in Washington Freedom history.

Hamm, who had offseason knee surgery, will come in as a reserve in Saturday's Founders Cup II against the Carolina Courage at Morris Brown College's Herndon Stadium in Atlanta.

The Freedom (12-5-5), the hottest team in the Women's United Soccer Association, have gone 10-1-2 with Hamm coming in as a second-half substitute this season. Why tinker with success?

"We're going to continue the things that we did to get here," coach Jim Gabarra said. "You don't want to make adjustments just to make adjustments, and we've been successful doing what we've been doing. We're comfortable with her coming off the bench at halftime, and she is as well."

Hamm, who graduated from Lake Braddock High School in Burke, indeed has no problems with her role. With national team commitments coming up later this fall, especially Women's World Cup qualifying in late October, Hamm is content playing whatever role the Freedom need her to play.

"Things have been going well so far," she said. "I don't want to rock the boat. People are doing well, things are going well, we're getting results, so why change anything?" Hamm said.

This is the most meaningful game Hamm has played since the final of the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Hamm, perhaps the most recognizable female athlete ever, ended last year as the world's all-time leading goal scorer with 129 goals, plus 109 assists.

Even though she's not starting, Hamm still has her touch. She has three game-winning goals for the Freedom this season in just 12 games. In the last four games of the regular season, she scored four of her eight goals and assisted on five others while playing only the second halves.

"She is focused, and she is going to approach it just as the whole team is it's another game, and it's the last game of the year and we want to win; we don't want to lose," Gabarra said. "You don't want to go overboard and start trying things that are not natural or not part of your game. She's professional enough to do that."

That means sitting out the first half. When Hamm comes in, she is a fresh, whirling-dervish going against tired legs that already have slogged a hard 45 minutes. On a dead sprint, there probably is no faster Freedom player. She fearlessly will attack defenses by herself sometimes running at four defenders and still be able to get off a shot on goal.

There are many factors responsible for the Freedom's rise to prominence in their second season, but Hamm's contributions cannot be minimized. Playing just 506 minutes over 11 regular-season games, she was second on the team with eight goals and six assists.

"For me, my season is on Saturday," Hamm said.

It could be in the Freedom's favor that Hamm, WUSA Rookie of the Year Abby Wambach and forward Bai Jie did not earn a point in last Saturday's 1-0 semifinal victory at Philadelphia. The odds of those three not getting a point in Saturday's championship is slim.

"They've got Bai Jie in the first half, they've got Abby in the first half, and then you've got our midfield that has been playing pretty strong, and then you've got Mia and Jacqui [Little] and [Monica Gerardo] and whoever else coming off the bench," Gabarra warned the Charge. "It's not like you can plan on one particular lineup. We've done a good job of creating depth and creating confidence in the players that are coming off the bench."

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