- The Washington Times - Monday, August 26, 2002

ATLANTA By any standard, the Washington Freedom's second season was a success on the field.
In one year, the Freedom went from worst to second. Despite losing 3-2 to the Carolina Courage in Founders Cup II on Saturday, the Freedom can feel good knowing they went from 6-12-3 in their inaugural season to 12-6-5 and a berth in the Women's United Soccer Association's second championship game this year.
"I'm so proud of everyone in the way they rededicated themselves to this season," forward Mia Hamm said. "Even when we took some hits early on, we were able to find the courage to withstand those hits and move forward and play a different game. We did that, and that kind of character brought us to Founders Cup. Last year, we didn't get a lot of the bounces, and this year we did. I believe we made the most of our opportunities."
Washington took a 10-game unbeaten streak into Saturday's championship game its last loss was June22.
The Freedom's season changed in early June when key players returned from injury or arrived from overseas. Hamm, who had offseason knee surgery, made her season debut June12 and promptly scored the game-winning goal against the Boston Breakers.
Defensive midfielder Steffi Jones, whom the Freedom signed as a discovery player, arrived from Germany in early June and made her debut June8. With Jones on the field, the Freedom outscored opponents 32-17 in the regular season. The Freedom were outscored 12-8 without Jones in the lineup.
Bai Jie, the Freedom's veteran Chinese midfielder, struggled with a left knee problem early in the season and finally seemed healthy by mid-June.
Starting goalkeeper Siri Mullinix missed the first five games recuperating from offseason shoulder surgery. Mullinix tied her own league record with 13 saves against the Breakers in Week8 and finished first in the league in save percentage (80.8).
It was a season in which the front office was as sharp as the play on the field.
Drafting forward Abby Wambach with the second pick overall turned out to be a brilliant move. The 5-foot-10 Wambach played like a veteran scoring 10 goals and adding nine assists, finishing fourth in the league in scoring and was named WUSA Rookie of the Year. The University of Florida's all-time leading scorer carried the Freedom early in the season when Hamm, Jones and Bai were unavailable.
Offseason trades with the San Jose CyberRays that delivered midfielder Ann Cook and reserve forward Jacqui Little for ineffective Brazilian forward Pretinha and underachieving midfielder Michelle French worked out well. As the season wore on, Cook became a reliable component of the Freedom's midfield, and Little scored three goals and added four assists, including the assist on the game-winner in the Freedom's 1-0 playoff semifinal victory at the Philadelphia Charge.
Coach Jim Gabarra made the right moves, too.
Gabarra had Jen Grubb and Lindsay Stoecker switch positions. He moved Stoecker from central defense to defensive midfield and put Grubb into a central defending role her natural position.
That change alone helped shave the Freedom's goals-allowed total by almost 20 percent. Last season, the Freedom allowed 35 goals the second highest in the league. This season, the Freedom gave up 29 goals.
"[The Founders Cup result is] not the true evaluation of this team," Gabarra said. "The only thing that was true out there was that this team never quit. We accomplished tremendous things this year with the run we had. You hate for your getting bounces and your luck and fortune to run out in the final, but that's the reality, and we've got to face it and come back strong next year."
Gabarra seems confident personnel changes are unnecessary and that this same team can win the Founders Cup next season. If it weren't for a few unfortunate defensive breakdowns Saturday, the Freedom might have hoisted the trophy.
"We made a tremendous stride," Gabarra said. "I'm very proud of how we played this year and all our accomplishments this year."

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