The immortal words of Ernie Banks, "Let's play two," became a rallying cry for soccer yesterday. The American concept of the doubleheader intersected with soccer's continuing attempt to sell the global game to sports fans long preoccupied with pitching, hitting, running and passing a ball, but not kicking it. The Washington Freedom of the Women's United Soccer Association teamed with D.C. United, stalwart from Major League Soccer, for a doubleheader at RFK Stadium, and the result was an evening's soccer-fest that attracted 36,528.
The Freedom, playing only its second home game in its league's inaugural season, took on the Boston Breakers in the opener, and United played San Jose in the nightcap. The idea of having the likes of Mia Hamm and Marco Etcheverry sharing the same field resulted in a larger crowd than either of the local teams alone could have drawn. Genuine inconveniences plagued numerous Freedom fans who had to be relocated from choice seats because United fans were given preference, the date having been United's before the two teams joined in the doubleheader beginning at 5 o'clock. But it could also be said that soccer had acquired a new status with people clamoring for seating on RFK's lower deck, and almost filling it.
The Freedom's principal player also was relocated yesterday. Hamm, long ballyhooed as the leading scorer in women's soccer around the world, started for the first time as center midfielder. Hamm became the most recognized women's player as a soloist forward with an uncanny ability to finish her scoring chances. But that role would not fit on the Freedom, nor would the one she played in the first three games, right midfielder, although the team had managed to win twice. She would have to become the engine to run the team, as Etcheverry does for D.C. United.
The women's national team had its share of players available to take leadership positions, including Michelle Akers, Carla Overbeck and Julie Foudy. Hamm was free as a forward to be a finisher, although defense was just as important to her and she worked hard at it. Often praised for her scoring, she is an all-around player perfect to build a team around, a blessing for a new team in a new league. As leader, she donned a bright yellow armband; as leader and team player, she demonstrated still more of her multiple skills.
In its first three games, the Freedom hadn't created scoring plays and Hamm hadn't had the ball that much. Jim Gabarra, the coach, made the one change that guaranteed putting the ball on Hamm's foot. It remained to be seen if she could make things happen, but that didn't take long. In the first 25 minutes, the Freedom created more offense than it had in its earlier games, maybe its earlier games combined. Hamm and forward Tracey Milburn, relocated yesterday from a reserve role, helped create a coming-out party of sorts for the Freedom, its most exciting game so far. The crowd-pleasing Freedom manufactured scoring chances as if on an assembly line.
This is how Gabarra has wanted the team to play, to take the ball and strike quickly. Now he was seeing just that, with Milburn and the Brazilian Pretinha scoring. The Freedom applied plenty of pressure, at least in the first half. The Freedom had not been remotely creative in its last game, a 2-0 loss at San Diego. "It seemed like we didn't have an urgency to get the ball forward," Gabarra said. "We didn't create any dangerous chances."
Yesterday was different, up to a point. "In the first half, we looked like a dangerous team," he said. "We just didn't put enough of our chances away. The game should have been over at halftime." The Freedom also failed to apply pressure in the second half, and as a result could not create more scoring opportunities. Instead, Boston rallied with two goals, the second in injury time to salvage a tie. "We started applying pressure as a team," said Boston's Kristine Lilly, standout from the national team.
More than 21,000 fans were in the seats for the Freedom's game, an impressive followup to the team's opening-game crowd of more than 34,000. The league is hoping to average 7,500. "We started this league because we knew there was a great and untapped market for women's soccer," Freedom General Manager Katy Button said. "We're thrilled with the terrific start we are getting off to in our first two games. We're delighted to have partnered in this doubleheader with D.C. United."
The drums that sounded during the first game were those of D.C. United fans getting behind the Freedom. Freedom fans took the cue and chanted to the drumbeats. Most of the first-game crowd stayed to watch D.C. United-San Jose, another intensely played game with a similar ending, an injury-time goal that lifted San Jose, 3-2. Despite the home-side loss, RFK rocked into the evening for two games as it has for many a significant soccer match. "It was a great day for soccer," Lilly said.
Actually, it was yet another on a growing list of the sport's memorable days in Washington, among them international friendlies, the MLS Cup, the World Cup and, at FedEx Field, the Women's World Cup.