After two Women's World Cup titles, an Olympic gold medal, more international goals than anyone in history and more renown and responsibility than any American player of either gender, Mia Hamm's biggest challenge still lies ahead.

The Women's United Soccer Association, the professional league built largely by her fame, is struggling at the dawn of its third season. Her team, the Washington Freedom, is eager to recapture the momentum that brought it within 90 minutes of a championship.

Looming large over it all is the Women's World Cup five months from now in China. It is there that Hamm and other national team veterans who have become a surrogate family during a decade of travel and triumph are scheduled to compete on the sport's biggest stage for the last time.

Hamm quietly has been preparing for months, training on her own in Arizona. She joined the women's national team for a recent tournament in Portugal, but the marathon begins in earnest this afternoon when the Freedom visits the Carolina Courage in each team's season opener. The match in Cary, N.C., is a rematch of last August's Founders Cup final. Although highlighted by Hamm's spectacular curling blast that pulled Washington within one midway through the second half, the title game ended in a 3-2 defeat for an athlete so accustomed to success.

To return to the final the Freedom must negotiate a league with proven parity. And Hamm, who at 31 is healthy for the first time in more than two years, must balance the demands of her team, her league and her country.

"There's always just some nervousness because you've never had to do it before. We haven't had to deal with anything like this prior to the WUSA starting, but it's a good thing," Hamm said. "We have to balance making sure that we're [playing well together] but that we're not fatigued going into the World Cup, but at the same time not taking away from any of our responsibilities.

"There's going to be some level of fatigue, obviously."

After a 2001 campaign sullied by defeat and personal turmoil, a reinvigorated Hamm returned to form. Although she usually was a second-half substitute for the Freedom after returning from knee surgery, Hamm was at her slashing, dynamic best during the march to the playoffs. She had nine goals and six assists in 595 minutes, equivalent to fewer than seven full games.

Hamm topped it off by scoring the overtime winner in the Americans' 2-1 win over Canada in November's CONCACAF Women's Gold Cup final. Hamm now must turn the efficiency of 2002 into consistency in 2003.

"I have to be very conscious of how much she does have on her plate this year," Freedom Coach Jim Gabarra said. "The WUSA season right now is the small picture.

"The World Cup is a part of the bigger picture. There will be some times where we need her for 90 minutes and need her to impact games. When she feels good physically and mentally she's unstoppable. When she starts to feel worn down or fatigued, she can't perform where she's expected to and where she expects to. It's going to be a constant evaluation."

Hamm said the patience and attention to detail that characterized her return from injury and the Freedom's Founders Cup defeat would be crucial.

"As you get older, your body doesn't necessarily recover as quickly. You have to be even smarter with regards to your rest and your nutrition and how you take care of yourself off the field, making the best decisions you can," Hamm said. "With how we finished the season, I also saw what it did take, every minute of each game. Those small things you have to do.

"That's how that final game was, even more glaringly so, one missed touch or one bad clear and it changes everything. We have a different kind of confidence going into this year and we're hoping that helps us be a bit more consistent throughout."

While Hamm, goalkeeper Siri Mullinix and forward Abby Wambach are competing for spots on the Women's World Cup team, it will fall to the rest of the Freedom to maintain that consistency. The team has lost little from last year and has made a couple of key additions in German defender Sandra Minnert and Australian midfielder Kelly Golebiowski. Midfielder Lindsay Stoecker has returned from knee surgery, and combined with Minnert, midfielder Steffi Jones and defender Jen Grubb, will anchor the Freedom in back.

The trade of Anne Makinen to Philadelphia and the year-long loan of Pu Wei to the Chinese national team leaves a few questions in midfield, but nothing that the returning players and the recently acquired Lori Lindsey, a two-time ACC player of the year at Virginia, should be unable to answer. Last year's WUSA rookie of the year, forward Abby Wambach, will again spearhead the attack.

Although league rosters were cut during the offseason from 18 to 16 active players, the Freedom has more depth, which should give Hamm and the other national teamers some peace of mind.

"We can't have the mentality of thinking we're only good enough when we have them," said Grubb. "If we do the things we should be doing while they're gone they won't feel as much pressure when they get back."

Although the Women's World Cup will mark the beginning of the end of the careers of national team veterans such as Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy, it may mark a crucial turning point for the teetering WUSA.

The league survived its sophomore slump and its investors appear committed, but a sluggish economy and little television presence left it facing further cuts. Team salary caps were reduced to $595,750 from $834,500, forcing many players, including Hamm and the rest of the founding players, to take a 25 percent pay cut.

The Freedom's 20 percent boost in season ticket sales indicates there still is interest in women's professional soccer, but the exposure and interest generated by the Women's World Cup will be invaluable. It is through this lens that Hamm approaches the season. She remains the sport's marketing linchpin.

"She's someone I would never bet against doing anything on the soccer field. I think she's proven that time and time again," Gabarra said. "Any time there's any sliver of doubt, she comes back twice as strong."

Healthy for the first time in two years, Mia Hamm, 31, will try to lead the Washington Freedom back to WUSA final after finishing second last year.