The Washington Freedom's pursuit of a return trip to the Founders Cup final begins today at the Women's United Soccer Association draft in Atlanta, where Coach Jim Gabarra hopes to add versatility and depth to a roster in promising shape despite the temporary departure of Chinese midfielder Pu Wei.
This fall's Women's World Cup will be the backdrop against which the league's third season is played, and the host Chinese have opted to get a head start on preparation. The Chinese soccer federation is requiring the majority of its national team to train full-time in China. Some notables, such as the Atlanta Beat's Sun Wen, retired from the WUSA. Others, including Pu, will remain contractually bound to the league but will spend the entire season on loan.
Their negotiating leverage compromised by the possibility that the Chinese players might be prohibited from returning, WUSA and Freedom officials managed to secure the services of Washington's other Chinese player, Bai Jie, through July. Bai, a World Cup veteran whose place with the national side is more secure than Pu's, will miss two or three regular season games and the playoffs. Pu had one goal and nine assists in 22 games last season, while Bai tallied six goals and five assists in 18 games up front.
"I kind of foresaw this happening. Their program has always included a residential thing, and they're under a lot of pressure. But I had to fight for one of them," Gabarra said of the negotiations that have occupied a significant portion of his offseason. "At times it seemed like we would've had a better chance of moving a mountain than of getting any type of deal done with them, but this is a huge compromise for them, letting a player go when they expected her to be there the entire time."
Nevertheless, Gabarra is in much better shape than he was a year ago, when he faced the prospect of revamping a last-place team. Forward Mia Hamm, who terrorized opponents as a rejuvenated reserve during the latter half of last season, is fit and expected to contribute full-time. Defensive midfielder Lindsey Stoecker has recovered from a torn knee ligament, which ended her emergence as the Freedom's most consistent performer.
Two international signings, 21-year-old Australian Kelly Golebiowski, a left-sided attacker, and an unidentified German defender from the same FFC Frankfurt club that produced Freedom midfielder Steffi Jones should be announced soon.
Those additions leave Gabarra without any obvious needs heading into the four-round draft. The Freedom will not have a selection until the second-to-last pick of the second round. Last year Washington traded its first-round pick to Philadelphia for salary cap relief.
The talent pool in this year's draft is considerably deeper than last year's, and Gabarra said he is confident he will find a quality player with the 15th overall selection. The Freedom has entered trade talks with several teams, most notably with the San Diego Spirit for former Virginia playmaker Lori Lindsey.