- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 22, 2002

It might be a bit of an understatement to say Mia Hamm has had an impact on the Washington Freedom since her return two games ago from offseason knee surgery.

In 62 minutes as a reserve, Hamm has scored two goals including the game-winner against the Boston Breakers on June 12 and added an assist. Unfortunately for the Freedom, few saw the exploits of women's soccer's greatest all-time goal scorer; a combined 10,489 showed up at RFK Stadium for Hamm's first two comeback games both Freedom victories.

Today against the second-place Carolina Courage (5-2-3) at RFK, Hamm will look to extend her goal-scoring streak coming off the bench for the Freedom (4-4-3).

Hamm said her knee is still not ready for a full 90 minutes of action, but she is looking to play between 30 and 45 minutes today. Hamm played 25 minutes against the Breakers and 37 minutes in last Saturday's 4-0 win over the San Diego Spirit.

"A lot of [the reduced playing time] is just making sure that I'm strong enough and not fatiguing it because when I fatigue it is when I can hurt myself again," said Hamm, who had surgery Feb. 26.

However, Hamm is reluctant to take full credit for the Freedom's resurgence. Coincidence or not, the Freedom have won back-to-back games for the first time this season and for only the second time in club history with Hamm available for duty.

"Speaking of magic, I feel that she has got a little of hers back," Freedom captain Jen Grubb said. "I don't think any of us can say that she was completely there last year for whatever reason, whether we were expecting too much or she was struggling for whatever reason, but now I feel she's the Mia Hamm that everyone fears playing."

Last season, Hamm and the Freedom performed far below everyone's expectations. The Freedom were picked by many to win the Women's United Soccer Association championship, with Hamm the main reason. Instead, the Freedom finished tied for last (6-12-3), and Hamm scored six goals with four assists in 19 games.

Hamm's left knee was partly to blame. She played the entire season in pain and also was coming off shoulder surgery. Coach Jim Gabarra played Hamm, who has scored 108 goals in international play, in various midfield roles that took away from her goal-scoring prowess.

In the two games Hamm, 31, has played, the Freedom have erupted for six goals. Last season the Freedom scored a league-low 26.

"It benefits her coming off the bench late in games because other players are tired and hopefully we've worked them down a little bit," Gabarra said. "I don't think you would see that kind of production if she played the first 45 minutes of a game. It's a thing where we're trying to progress her to 45 to 60 minutes and then a whole game. It's not going to happen as fast as everybody would like. I think it's good for her confidence to know that she can help the team because if she can do that she's happier, more relaxed and more confident."

Hamm isn't the only personnel issue facing Gabarra. Last week's season-ending knee injury to holding midfielder Lindsay Stoecker forced Gabarra to reconfigure the midfield and back line. Gabarra will move rookie defender Casey Zimny to midfield and start Carrie Moore for Zimny at central defender today against the Courage.

With 10 games left in the regular season, the Freedom are in playoff contention. A healthy and productive Hamm down the stretch should deliver the Freedom to their first postseason. However, a repeat of last season's 2-7-1 run will have the Freedom sitting out for the second straight season, and Hamm knows it.

"We need to continue this ascension," Hamm said. "When you have success like we've had the last two games, the environment in practice is better. We're moving forward."

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