- The Washington Times - Monday, August 25, 2003

SAN DIEGO — After losing in the Founders Cup last year, the Freedom vowed they would return to the title game this season and bring the WUSA’s chalice home to Washington.

And yesterday they were true to their word.

Abby Wambach scored the golden goal in the 96th minute off a beautiful assist from Jenny Meier as the Freedom defeated the Atlanta Beat 2-1 in overtime in Founders Cup III before 7,106 at San Diego’s Torero Stadium.

The Freedom became the District’s first professional sports champion since 1999, when D.C. United won the MLS Cup.

But this title was a year in the making. Last season when the Freedom came up on the losing end of a 3-2 decision to the Carolina Courage in the championship game, the players promised 2003 would be the year.

“Yeehaw,” was Freedom coach Jim Gabarra’s jubilant reaction when he was asked for his comments immediately after the game. It’s safe to say he spoke for the whole team.

“We had a little bit more gas at the end of the game and into overtime and they had some players who were cramping that were physically spent, and to make that last run that Abby and Jenny Meier did, was the difference,”

Wambach’s drive and determination made the win possible. Wambach, who scored both of her team’s goals and was named the game’s most valuable player and receives a Hyundai of her choice, was kicked, elbowed, and tripped all game by the physical Beat.

Atlanta got Wambach mad, but that motivated the 5-foot-10 forward and she eventually had the last word.

“Atlanta pulls out the best in me,” Wambach said. “They’re physical and that’s something that I normally don’t have to deal with in a lot of other teams in terms of getting beat up a lot of times. I play best just under mad.”

Wambach finished as the WUSA’s second-leading goal scorer with 13 this season and seems to have inherited from teammate Mia Hamm the team role of clutch performer.

Yesterday’s game-winner was a perfect example of that.

On a quick counter attack, Freedom midfielder Jacqui Little intercepted an errant Beat pass in the Freedom’s defensive third and then played a long ball up the right flank to Meier.

Meier, who entered the game in the 64th minute as a second-half substitute for left-flank midfielder Kelly Golebiowski, took the pass and her right foot sent a cross through the goalmouth. The hard-charging Wambach ran onto the ball and from six yards out hit a left-footed strike between goalie Briana Scurry and the left near post.

“She nailed that thing right past me,” Atlanta goalkeeper Briana Scurry said. “I was barely able to get across the face of the goal. I had my heart and soul into this today and it was unfortunate that we didn’t win, but there is more to do for me on the national team.”

It remains to be seen if Wambach’s performance solidified her case to be on the U.S. Women’s World Cup team. She was considered one of the bubble players, but coach April Heinrichs will no doubt take note after yesterday. However, Wambach wasn’t saying whether her MVP performance earned her a spot on the World Cup team.

“Being able to lift the trophy at the end of the day is something that means more to me and more to my teammates than probably any words can explain,” Wambach said. “This is the greatest feeling that I’ve had in my soccer career.”

Wambach’s first career playoff goal gave the Freedom an early 1-0 lead in the seventh minute. Sandra Minnert served a long cross into the box. Wambach slipped behind Atlanta defender Sharlota Nonen and headed Minnert’s offering just inside the left post from 10 yards. It was the second-fastest goal in Founders Cup history. The Freedom are 9-0-1 this season when they score first.

A dubious call by referee Terry Vaughn put the Beat back into the game just before halftime. Vaughn awarded Atlanta a penalty kick during stoppage time when he whistled Skylar Little for tripping rookie defender Leslie Gaston in the penalty area. Atlanta forward Charmaine Hooper buried the penalty kick into the right corner and the game was tied at the half.

The Freedom had a couple opportunities to put the game away. In the 44th minute, Scurry made an incredible acrobatic save when she pushed Minnert’s 35-yard, free kick over the crossbar. In overtime, Hamm’s 20-yard, free kick went off the crossbar.

The play that set up Hamm’s kick was Atlanta defender Nancy Augustyniak’s take down of Wambach just outside the box. Augustyniak was ejected and the Beat had to play one player down. Two minutes later, Wambach struck to give the Freedom the Founders Cup.

“We’ve played Washington four times this year and it’s the first time we’ve lost to them,” Beat coach Tom Stone said. “It was clear in the second half that it was our game to win. I don’t think we’ve ever dominated possession like that before and we just walked into their end of the field.”

And yet, the Freedom walked away with the Cup.

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