Washington Freedom beats Atlanta Beat to secure WPS playoff berth

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 12, 2010; 12:20 AM

As it turned out, the Washington Freedom didn't need Abby Wambach's late goal Saturday night to secure a Women's Professional Soccer playoff berth. With the result of another league match working to its advantage, any outcome would have sufficed.

But locked in a scoreless game with the last-place Atlanta Beat and the other game hanging in the balance, the Freedom didn't want to risk relying on others to secure the final postseason slot. Maintaining its attacking mentality against the short-handed Beat, Washington ensured its place when, in the 88th minute, Wambach chipped the ball over goalkeeper Hope Solo for a 1-0 victory before 3,545 at Maryland SoccerPlex.

Next Sunday, the Freedom (8-9-7) will face the third-place Philadelphia Independence (10-10-4) in West Chester, Pa., with the winner playing at the second-seeded Boston Breakers (10-8-6) in the semifinal on Sept. 22 or 23. Gold Pride (16-3-5), from Northern California, finished first overall and will host the championship game Sept. 26.

Saturday's victory capped a dramatic resurgence by the Freedom, which endured a 10-game winless streak before going 4-1-2 in its last seven matches.

"The stress level was pretty high, but we can only control what we can control," said Wambach, who has a team-high 13 goals. "If we won this game, we knew it would be in our control."

The Freedom began the night leading Sky Blue by just a point in the standings. A Washington loss, coupled with a victory by the New Jersey club over visiting Boston, would have ended the Freedom's season. But with a 0-0 draw against the Breakers, Sky Blue could only pull even with Washington, which held the tiebreaker.

Nevertheless, Wambach met a bouncing ball at the top of the penalty area and lifted a soft shot over the charging Solo. "I saw Hope come out and then stay, but she was a little bit too off her line so I just kind of popped it over her head," Wambach said.

The Freedom survived two scares: In the 32nd minute, goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris was called upon to stop Kaley Fountain's one-on-one bid and, in the 59th, Atlanta had an apparent goal disallowed.

The Freedom had a player advantage for the final 14 minutes after Atlanta's Lauren Sesselmann received her second yellow card. In the 79th, Washington appeared to take the lead when reserve Christie Welsh converted from inside the six-yard box, but an offside call doused the celebration.

"It's been the theme for the last seven weeks," Freedom Coach Jim Gabarra said of his team's perseverance. "One thing I learned about this group is that we are pretty dependable when we need something desperately."

WPS Notes: Commissioner Tonya Antonucci, who developed the league's business model and oversaw the launch last year, is going to step down, several sources said. A league spokesman declined to comment.

Two teams folded this year, attendance has remained sluggish and, amid financial issues, the league has restructured operations and made personnel cuts. Meantime, the WPS board of governors has approved a western New York expansion franchise for next season, increasing the number of teams to eight, sources said.

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