- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2003

The Washington Freedom’s playoff aspirations will go through San Diego.

Three of the Freedom’s final seven games are against the Spirit, who are tied with Washington for the fourth and final playoff spot in the Women’s United Soccer Association.

The league’s schedule makers inadvertently added drama to the home stretch in what has turned out to be a tightly contested playoff race. The first of the three games is tonight at San Diego’s Torero Stadium as the Freedom (6-5-3) visit the Spirit (5-4-6) in Washington’s second cross-country trip.

“It’s our first chance to see them and compete against them,” Freedom coach Jim Gabarra said. “The first of three games is always important because when you look ahead at the tiebreaker, we need to get a result — either a win or a tie.”

For the Freedom to make the playoffs for the second season in a row, they must take care of business away from RFK Stadium. Four of the Freedom’s final seven games are on the road, where the team is 3-3-1. Conversely, the Spirit play four of their final six at home.

“We’ve been a good road team,” Gabarra said. “These matchups have a life of their own and break psychological barriers.”

That could include not having star Mia Hamm available for the full 90 minutes tonight. Hamm, who is the Freedom’s leading scorer with seven goals and seven assists, got knocked around Sunday in the U.S. team’s 1-0 exhibition victory over Brazil in New Orleans.

Already nursing a sore right knee that developed in mid-June, Hamm will dictate how many minutes she plays against the Spirit. The 31-year-old played the whole game in a rough match against the Brazilians.

“There’s no formula — you go game by game and day by day with her,” Gabarra said. “Obviously, it’s something that we are aware of. We’ve got to get three points in San Diego. Do you put her out on the field now and risk losing her later in the season?”

With three games in seven days, Gabarra probably will curtail Hamm’s minutes this week. Gabarra said he will talk to Hamm, the league’s fourth-leading scorer, before tonight’s game to see how she feels.

Last season, the Freedom swept the Spirit in three games and outscored them 8-0, with forward Abby Wambach getting four of the goals. The Spirit played a 4-4-2 formation, and Wambach exposed it.

This season Spirit coach Omid Namazi has preferred a 3-5-2 alignment with Joy Fawcett, a U.S. national team mainstay, playing centrally in the back, and Kim Pickup and Lisa Krzykowski forming San Diego’s back line.

Namazi’s formation switch has paid dividends. The Spirit are tied for second in the league in fewest goals allowed with 20.

“Abby did such a good job with that team playing four in the back that three in the back will give her more space,” Gabarra said.

The Spirit’s problem will be scoring. With star forward Shannon MacMillan sidelined with a torn ACL suffered May18, San Diego does not have any players who have scored a goal against the Freedom. Canadian Christine Latham, who has three goals in her last three matches, and Scottish international Julie Fleeting (seven goals and three assists) will seek to challenge the Freedom’s back line.

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