The Washington Freedom: Eight Seasons and Counting

Kevin ParkerCorrespondent IMay 23, 2009

SHREWSBURY, ENGLAND - APRIL 23: Maren Mjelde of Norway in action during the Women's International Friendly between England and Norway at the Prostar stadium on April 23, 2009 in Shrewsbury, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

There are seven teams in Women’s Professional Soccer, but only one has already been around for nine years.

In that interval, players who have taken the field in the blue-and-white have included some of the biggest names in women’s soccer: Julie Foudy, Heather Mitts, Angela Hucles, Sun Wen, and Brandi Chastain.

Oh, and a couple of players who have scored quite a few goals between them, Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach.

The Freedom were born as one of the eight teams in the WUSA, back in 2000. When play started in 2001, Washington was the flagship team of that league, hosting the inaugural match at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium and featuring the marquee name in women’s soccer if not all of women’s sports, Mia Hamm.

However, that didn’t help them much. After winning the inaugural match and doing well early on, the Freedom faltered badly and finished tied for last place.

This gave them a high draft pick, and they used it to pick up a promising young forward named Abby Wambach. Wambach wasn’t yet an established star, in fact, the team picking first in the draft, the last-place Carolina Courage, spurned her in favor of Olympic silver medal defender Danielle Slaton.

But Wambach would blossom in the WUSA, helped by the tutelage of Mia Hamm, and would be the first WUSA player to score double-digits in both goals and assists in a season.

With Wambach and Hamm up front, and a much-improved defense in back, anchored by national team goalkeeper Siri Mullinix, the Freedom would roar into the Founders Cup, the WUSA championship match, with a five-game winning streak and a 10-game unbeaten streak.

Surprisingly, their opponents are the Carolina Courage, who have similarly turned their season around. The championship is a hard-fought match, but unfortunately for the Freedom they come out on the short end by a score of 3-2.

Notable personnel changes in 2003 included trading for Lori Lindsey from the San Diego Spirit and signing former Canadian national team goalkeeper Nicci Wright. Once the season started, Washington wasn’t nearly so dominant as before but did well enough to earn the fourth and final playoff spot.

This sent them on the road to face the Boston Breakers, another tight match that was decided on penalty kicks, with Siri Mullinix saving not one, but two to send the Freedom back to the Founders Cup.

This time the Freedom would come out ahead, winning 2-1 over the Atlanta Beat, with Abby Wambach scoring both Freedom goals, the second in golden-goal overtime.

Alas, just a few weeks afterwards, the WUSA would suspend operations and never resume, except for four 2004 exhibition matches dubbed “WUSA Festivals.” (Julie Foudy and Angela Hucles joined the Freedom as guest players for one of these exhibitions.)

Unique among the WUSA teams, however, the Freedom would carry on, putting together a team made up mostly of their former WUSA players but also included young local talent such as Madison Keller (now on the WPS Freedom roster) and Ali Krieger (not currently on the roster but allocated to the Freedom as one of their players from the national team pool).

In 2004, they played various college and amateur club teams, joined on a couple of occasions by current Boston Breakers and national team defender Heather Mitts.

In 2005, they would continue similar exhibitions but with a much improved roster, adding national teamers Tiffany Roberts and Kylie Bivens, former WUSA players Emily Janss (still with the team to this day) and Betsy Barr, and U-21 national teamer Joanna Lohman, while getting more time from Ali Krieger, also part of the U-21s.

One of the high points of this season was a July 9 match against the New Jersey Wildcats, who featured players now in WPS like Cat Whitehill, Kacey White, and Karina LeBlanc, and were on their way to the W-League championship, the highest achievement in the amateur club realm in North America.

The rich Freedom roster gave the Wildcats all they could handle, and the game ended as a 1-1 draw.

The other high points involved the recruiting of guest players. Sun Wen, one of the greatest players in the history of the women’s game, played in one match, and Brandi Chastain (now with FC Gold Pride) played in another when she was in town to do soccer commentary for ESPN for a match at FedEx Field.

In 2006, the Freedom joined the W-League themselves, but only as an associate member, meaning they would have a season of games against W-League teams, but the matches wouldn’t count.

Then in 2007 they got serious and became a full W-League franchise, while continuing their recruiting efforts, this time signing up Christie Welsh (now with St. Louis Athletica), Kati Jo Spisak, Rebecca Moros, Sarah Huffman, and Alex Singer, all now part of the WPS Freedom.

Meanwhile, Lori Lindsey and Kele Golebiowski remain with the team from the WUSA days, while Nicci Wright has retired from the team to become their goalkeeper coach.

The Freedom would dominate their W-League division, finishing with a 12-1-1 record, then went on to beat the regular-season champion Ottawa Fury, 1-0, before eventually facing, in an odd sort-of rematch of the last WUSA championship, the Atlanta Silverbacks.

The Freedom would make a statement almost immediately, scoring a goal 45 seconds in with names still associated with the team: Ali Krieger intercepted a pass at midfield, then drove in on the defense.

When they gathered to her, she passed the ball to Lori Lindsey, who dished it to Rebecca Moros, who, despite a strong challenge on her shoulder from a Silverbacks defender, knocked the ball into the net.

Christie Welsh added a second goal, and the Freedom would go on to win, 3-1, to collect their second North American club championship trophy.

There was a bit of an epilogue to the year, as the Freedom were invited to play in the National Soccer Hall of Fame game against the Connecticut Reds.

After being inducted into the Hall, Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy put on cleats one last time and played in the exhibition game.

At this point the rumors were flying about the return of women’s professional soccer in 2008, and in fact an announcement was scheduled for early September. The news is mixed: yes, there will be another pro league, but it’s not going to start until 2009.

The Freedom field a W-League team again in 2008, but it feels more like a stopgap until 2009.

Nevertheless, they again lead their division with an 11-1-2 record and again make it to the W-League final four. However, this time they lose to the eventual champion Pali Blues, 2-0.

2009 is, of course, a new era, but it’s just the next chapter in the history of the Freedom, and one that follows on from the previous chapters. Head coach Jim Gabarra and assistant Clyde Watson have been with the team since its inception.

Abby Wambach joined the team in 2002, while goalkeeper coach Nicci Wright and midfielder Lori Lindsey have been around since the final WUSA season.

Ali Krieger and Madison Keller have been associated with the team since 2004, Emily Janss and Joanna Lohman since 2005, Rebecca Moros, Sarah Senty, Sarah Huffman, and Alex Singer since 2007.

In fact, out of 21 players on the WPS roster, 12 have played for the Freedom already. (Meanwhile, seven players for other WPS teams have played for the Freedom at some point.)

More importantly, the team has had a commitment to excellence since 2002 and have consistently lived up to that commitment, bringing home two championship trophies from two different leagues. Will they make it a third? Only time will tell!


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