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Washington Freedom searching for answers after loss to Boston

Jim Gabarra was an unhappy man.

Minutes after his Washington Freedom fell to the Boston Breakers, 2-1, in the league opener of the 2010 Women’s Professional Soccer season Saturday at the Maryland SoccerPlex, Gabarra – normally stoic and reserved on the sideline – was visibly troubled with his team’s performance.

“I didn’t recognize the team in the first 30 minutes,” Gabarra said. “There was no willingness to compete – a catastrophic 30 minutes and we give up two soft goals, in my opinion.”

The only coach the Freedom has known since the club was founded prior to the start of WUSA in 2001 was particularly disturbed with the performances of about half a dozen Freedom players he said he normally counts on to give better accounts of themselves.

Any names? Negative. “I like to give it 24 hours,” he said.

It was an unfortunate night for Washington, which welcomed a crowd just shy of 4,000 on a beautiful spring evening – with one of those in attendance being Pia Sundhage, the U.S. Women’s National Team coach.

“So, what did you think,” a reporter called out to her as she ran to catch up with Freedom forward Abby Wambach as she departed the field.

“It’s OK,” Sundhage said. “It’s a good start!”

Well, for the Breakers, anyway.

Boston, which failed to make the playoffs a year ago, took an early 2-0 lead and never looked back. Forward Lauren Cheney gave the visitors the lead just six minutes in when she re-directed Kristine Lilly’s low-driven cross after a short corner kick that caught the Freedom defense unprepared.

Twelve minutes later, the 38-year-old left midfielder earned her second assist of the night when she lofted a perfectly placed cross that just skimmed the head of defender Cat Whitehill and landed on the chest of forward Kelly Smith. The English national team forward directed the ball into space with a brilliant touch, then turned and sent a low shot into the far corner out of reach of diving goalkeeper Erin McLeod.

“She’s one of the best players in the world,” Whitehill said of Kelly.

The goal concluded a disastrous 20 minutes for Washington, which could never recover.

“It’s tough when you’re down two,” Gabarra said. “We weren’t as sharp as we wanted to be, especially in the midfield.”

Defender Rebecca Moros was in no better mood than her coach.

“It’s anti-climactic when you put in six weeks of hard work, the get surprised when the first goal goes in,” Moros said. She seemed to take personal blame for the team’s lack of width, as few crosses were supplied to Wambach in the air.

Washington opened with four defenders – Sonia Bompastor on the left, Moros on the right, and Whitehill and former forward Nikki Marshall in the middle. Former central defender Becky Sauerbrunn and Allie Long served has holding midfielders, with Japanese international Homare Sawa filling in behind Wambach as the attacking midfielder.

Newly acquired Norwegian midfielder Lene Mykjaland started on the left side of midfield, and Sarah Huffman opened on the right. That left Wambach alone up top as the sole target player.

“With just one forward up top (Wambach), we need to get our outside backs forward. It’s hard for Abby to get the ball…” without the support, Moros said, citing her side’s slow transition from defense to offense.

“We were tentative, afraid to make a mistake,” Whitehill said. “It was strange… maybe it was the first-game jitters.”

Indeed, the second was the better of the two, with Long’s 87th minute score putting the game in doubt until the final whistle. Whitehill sent one of her classic well-driven passes to Wambach, whose header found Long cutting to the goal. Her shot from 12 yards beat goalkeeper Ashley Phillips, who to that point had earned the shut-out.

Much of the second-half energy was the result of the addition of forward Lisa De Vanna, the Australian international whose aggressive style is like introducing a tornado in a Tiffany’s. Her long runs with and without the ball after coming on midway through the second half put Boston’s defense on its heels.

“That’s Lisa’s strength – to come on and bring energy and scoring chances,” Gabarra said.

De Vanna’s inclusion forced Gabarra to make some changes. He first removed Sawa and pushed Wambach into the attacking midfielder role. After several minutes, he moved Wambach back up top to join De Vanna in a 4-4-2 formation. Late in the game, Gabarra pulled Huffman and put in Christie Welsh on the left wing, creating a 4-3-3 formation.

“We knew we would have to withstand some pressure,” said Boston Coach Tony DiCicco. “And I was sorry to see us give up that late goal.”

Both Gabarra and Whitehill detailed areas where the Freedom needs to improve:
- As the attacking midfielder, Sawa needs to push forward more to support Wambach and to make the penetrating runs into the space Wambach leaves (such as diagonal corner-flag runs). Wambach was left alone too often; when she could turn she was typically 30 yards or more from goal.
- Communicate better in the back, particularly with the addition of Marshall in the center of the defense. Smith’s goal was the result of her exploiting the space behind Whitehill and in front of Marshall. Neither defender covered Boston’s most dangerous scoring threat.
- The outside defenders need to get forward faster, and more often, and provide the service into the box to the world’s most dangerous header in the women’s game – Wambach.
- Open the game with the intensity the team demonstrated in the closing 15 minutes of Saturday’s match.

We’re going to build on the last forty-five minutes,” Whitehill said.

Freedom Notes
- The last time Washington and Boston faced each other was July 29 in a match to decide third and fourth place in the WPS league standings. A Boston defender was ejected in the fifth minute, leaving the Breakers with just 10 players for 85 minutes. Wambach capitalized, netting the game’s lone goal with an assist from De Vanna in the 73rd minute to help Washington clinch third place and a playoff spot.
- It was the first game for Mykjaland in a Freedom uniform. The Norwegian previously played for Roa in the Norwegian Premier League, and helped the team win league titles in 2007, 2008 and 2009, and helped the side reach the Champions League quarterfinals this year. Mykjaland, who turned her ankle early in the match, was replaced by Jill Gilbeau at halftime.
- The game was the first featuring the Maryland SoccerPlex’ new screen video board.
- Washington hosts the Atlanta Beat on Saturday, April 18, at 7 pm.
- Boston returns to the Maryland SoccerPlex on May 8.