- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 31, 2002

The Washington Freedom haven't even secured their first playoff spot, and they're already talking about positioning.

The hottest team in the Women's United Soccer Association has lost just once in its past 11 games and could clinch a playoff berth by week's end. The Freedom (8-5-5) would need wins tonight at the second-place Carolina Courage (10-4-3) and at home Sunday against the Atlanta Beat (9-7-1) coupled with a loss or tie by the San Jose CyberRays to clinch.

And a home game in the playoffs isn't out of the question for the Freedom. The top-two finishers in the WUSA play host to games in the playoffs, and the Freedom trail the Courage by just four points for second.

With three games remaining, the Freedom would need to defeat the Courage tonight at State Capital Soccer Park in Cary, N.C., and hope for some help.

"It's fortunate that we can approach tonight's game with that in mind," Freedom coach Jim Gabarra said. "If we can get the result and three points, then we'll be even with them in the loss column. And if we can string some wins together, we can move up."

If the WUSA standings hold, the third-place Freedom would play at the second-place Courage in one semifinal Aug.17. The first-place Philadelphia Charge would play host to the Beat in the other semifinal.

"Obviously, this game tonight has something else to consider as a playoff preview," Gabarra said.

The Freedom's last loss came against the Courage 3-1 at RFK Stadium on June22. A win over the Freedom would clinch a playoff berth for Carolina.

Gabarra credits his team's defense for the impressive turnaround this season from last year's last-place finish. The Freedom have allowed 23 goals this season; last season, they allowed 35 goals.

"We've been playing solid soccer and defending well," Gabarra said. "I'm confident in the way they are defending."

The defensive turnaround partly can be attributed to central defenders Carrie Moore and Jen Grubb. Moore marks the opposition's most dangerous forward, which leaves Grubb in a comfort zone in which she can play more of a sweeper role. German midfielder Steffi Jones also plays a pivotal role, providing a calming influence in the middle by winning balls and showing sound possession.

Gabarra said he is going to keep star forward Mia Hamm in her reserve role until the final game of the season Aug.10 at the New York Power. Hamm, who underwent offseason knee surgery, still isn't 100 percent but has provided a nice spark off the bench.

When the Freedom get back to playing one game a week, he will start Hamm and play her 90 minutes.

"It doesn't help her or the team if we push her to get in 90 minutes," Gabarra said. "When we play one game a week, you'll see more minutes out of her in our last game and in the playoffs."

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