Freedom Beats Athletica for First WPS Win in Nearly a Month

Athletica's Sara Larsson, right, and the Freedom's Rebecca Moros fight for control during Washington's 1-0 victory at RFK Stadium.
Athletica's Sara Larsson, right, and the Freedom's Rebecca Moros fight for control during Washington's 1-0 victory at RFK Stadium. (By Richard A. Lipski -- Washington Post)
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By Paul Tenorio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 19, 2009

Washington Freedom Coach Jim Gabarra laughed on the sideline as goalkeeper coach Nicci Wright took off her necklace and searched the bench for a jersey.

With first-string goalie Erin McLeod called up for Canadian national team duty and third-stringer Briana Scurry not available because of an injury, Washington was down to its final option when starter Kati Jo Spisak went out with a pulled quadriceps yesterday in the 64th minute of the Freedom's 1-0 win over Saint Louis Athletica. The game, played before an announced crowd of 4,606, was the first half of a doubleheader with D.C. United at RFK Stadium.

Wright was registered as a player with the league for exactly this type of just-in-case situation, and this week she was signed to a short-term contract she joked was probably for a measly sum of $75.

But the 36-year-old Canadian, who hadn't played a professional match in six years and hadn't seen any game action since 2006, didn't expect to actually get the call.

"Jim just kept saying, 'I told you, I told you [that] you were going in,' " Wright said. "It was all week, people were like, 'You better train,' and I was like, 'Really, do I need to train this week?' So it was kind of funny, I think they were just sort of like, 'Told you.' "

The coach-turned-player held her own and maintained the shutout, and the Freedom (5-6-5) got a fortunate deflection on a shot by midfielder Homare Sawa to secure a vital three points, vaulting the club back into a crowded playoff picture in Women's Professional Soccer. Saint Louis fell to 7-6-2 with the loss.

Playing without defender Cat Whitehill, forward Abby Wambach and McLeod, all of whom were called up for national team duty, and with their hopes for a playoff spot slipping further away, the Freedom could hardly afford another tie -- especially at home.

After 70 scoreless minutes and with both teams seeming to fade, it looked as if Washington's recent woes would continue. But with some help from Athletica defenders, Washington finally got a goal and the three points it desperately needed.

A Saint Louis defender's back-pass attempt in the 74th minute perfectly led Sawa toward the net, and the Japanese international's shot to the far post was immediately redirected into the goal at the near post by the toe of Athletica defender Kia McNeill.

"The last two games we've had a lot of strange things happen," Gabarra said. "And it's a wonderful life if it ends up with those three points."

The goal came near the end of a game that had seen several half-chances challenge both goalkeepers, but only one looked like a true scoring opportunity.

That came early in the first half when Athletica's Niki Cross was freed one-on-one about 30 yards from goal. Spisak was slow coming out, and Cross touched it by her and kept her footing despite getting clipped by Spisak's hand. But after Cross recovered, her attempt to direct a shot past two Freedom defenders racing back onto the goal line instead found only the side netting.

Washington's Rebecca Moros had several one-time offerings that missed the target in the first half, and Spisak pushed a header over the crossbar in the 20th minute, but neither team could break through before intermission.

The Freedom started the second half with more energy on the wings, using runs by Sonia Bompastor and Ali Krieger to challenge the Athletica defense. But it wasn't until Sawa's run, and the fortunate deflection, that Washington was able to get its first win since June 20.

And for Wright, it was a win the coach could savor a bit more than usual.

"I think I should get more than $75, don't you," Wright joked. "I think they should just double my pay for what I had to go through."

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