After midseason rut, rejuvenated Washington Freedom makes final playoff push

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 28, 2010; 1:43 AM

Washington Freedom President Mark Washo didn't realize the degree of the problems afflicting his Women's Professional Soccer team until he was invited to a meeting arranged by the players several weeks ago.

"That is when I sensed things might be getting out of control," he recalled. "It struck me that, 'Wow, we've got bigger problems going on here than I thought.' "

Amid a midseason rut that would become a 10-game winless streak, players spoke of their frustration with one another and with Coach Jim Gabarra. Communication was breaking down.

Washo contemplated firing Gabarra, the only head coach in the franchise's nine-year history through three leagues.

"It pretty much seemed like he had lost control," said Washo, who was hired before WPS's 2009 inaugural season after working for D.C. United, Chicago and New York in MLS. "You had a very strong divide [among the players in regard to Gabarra]. The pendulum swung pretty strong in favor of bringing in someone else."

Asked by Washo to present a course of action or face termination, Gabarra proposed hiring Emma Hayes, a veteran English coach, as a consultant. Washo agreed to the plan and decided to retain Gabarra. As part of the turnover, however, longtime assistant Clyde Watson departed.

The turmoil and change have seemed to spark a recovery.

The Freedom (6-8-7) takes a four-game unbeaten streak into Saturday night's match against defending champion Sky Blue of New Jersey (7-9-4) at Maryland SoccerPlex.

With two weeks left in the regular season, the sides are tied for the fourth and final playoff berth with 25 points apiece.

Sky Blue, though, has played one fewer match, meaning Washington almost can't afford to lose Saturday. The Freedom's final two games are against the league's bottom clubs, Chicago and Atlanta.

"It's been down, up, down, and now we are coming into form at the right time," striker Abby Wambach said.

Hayes, fired by the Chicago Red Stars early this season, is credited with improving communication and refining defensive tactics.

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