In New League, Freedom Already Has a Familiar Feeling

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 29, 2009

Players for the seven clubs that make up Women's Professional Soccer, the second attempt in a decade to sustain a U.S. national league, have had less than a month to get acquainted. They've come from diverse backgrounds -- from semipro and foreign circuits, from college programs and national teams -- and been tossed together on short notice.

"Realistically, you need at least six weeks to get ready for a season," said Jim Gabarra, coach of the Washington Freedom, which will play in WPS's inaugural match today against the Los Angeles Sol at Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.

The rapid bonding period is the nature of a thrifty league wedged into a compact calendar -- not even six months from start to finish.

But while other teams have had to build off-field camaraderie and on-field cohesiveness from scratch, the Freedom has enjoyed a head start.

After the financial collapse of the Women's United Soccer Association in 2003, the Freedom remained active as a youth program and, under Gabarra's direction, fielded a second-division amateur team that won a national title two years ago.

When the new league formed, Gabarra recognized the importance of developing chemistry quickly in a short season and sought players familiar with him and one another.

Through drafts, allocations, tryouts and a trade, the Freedom acquired 12 players who previously represented the club, a figure that makes up more than half of the 22-woman roster.

Based at Maryland SoccerPlex in Montgomery County, the Freedom will play a 20-game schedule, including three doubleheaders with D.C. United at RFK Stadium, in pursuit of one of four playoff berths. The Boston Breakers, Chicago Red Stars, St. Louis Athletica, FC Gold Pride (located in the San Francisco Bay Area) and Sky Blue FC (which will play its games in New Jersey) will debut next weekend in a league that plans to expand to 10 teams in the coming years.

For the Freedom, the start of a new season has an old feel to it.

"I am looking around at practice, thinking, 'She's been here, she's been here, she's been here.' The instincts, the bonding, it's already taken place the last few years," said midfielder Emily Janss, 30, a University of Maryland graduate who has been aligned with the Freedom for four years.

"We already have stories, we've shared laughs. It's on the field, as well. Maybe we are not a leg up on the rest of the league, but at least we are a couple steps in the right direction. The core was already here, the new players arrived, and it was like, 'Okay, here we go.' "

Janss and the other holdovers provide the support system for a team that also signed U.S. national team veterans Abby Wambach and Cat Whitehill, Japanese midfield star Homare Sawa, French defender Sonia Bompastor and Australian forward Lisa De Vanna.

The returning group includes former University of Virginia standouts Lori Lindsey, Alex Singer and Becky Sauerbrunn. Virginia's Sarah Huffman was also retained, but a knee injury suffered in training camp will sideline her for the season. Sarah Senty, a Cavalier with Freedom ties, was drafted by Washington but decided to finish school first, and Madison Keller, 21, rose through the club's youth system to earn a roster spot.

The Freedom was a provisional member of the second-division W-League in 2006, won the championship a year later and made the semifinals last summer.

"Seeing the ins and outs and what the Freedom has done by developing players and playing in the W-League, we are going to be a step ahead of everybody," Whitehill said. "We need that now because the season is so short and winning is everything."

Although Whitehill, 27, and Wambach, 28, have never played on the same club, their national team association is another element of the Freedom's familiarity. Wambach has scored many of her 99 international goals off Whitehill's passes from the backline and booming free kicks.

Wambach's comfort level with the Freedom dates to 2002, when, as a WUSA rookie from the University of Florida, she joined superstar Mia Hamm on the frontline of Gabarra's squad. A year later, in the league's final season, Washington won the championship.

Wambach's return to a seasoned group has positioned the Freedom nicely for the start of the new league.

"It's a big advantage for maybe the first month or two months," Gabarra said. "I look back at 2001 [in the WUSA's first season] where we had 22 different pieces. None of them knew anything about the city, about the coaches, about each other. Now we have a core of players who are very comfortable with each other. They've been with us at some point, even if it was just one season. We get on the field and everything clicks, it makes sense."

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