Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Freedom win division, await playoffs

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The Washington Freedom women’s soccer team recorded its fourth shutout in five games and extended its winning streak to seven Sunday with a 4-0 win over the Western Mass Lady Pioneers at Lusitano Stadium in Ludlow, Mass., in the team’s regular-season finale.

With the victory, the Freedom, which overcome a 2-0 first-half deficit to defeat the Boston Renegades (7-7-0 record), 4-2, on the road Saturday, clinched first place in the W-League’s Northeast Division and earned an automatic bid to the Eastern Conference Championships Saturday and Sunday in Ottawa, Canada.

The W-League is currently the country’s premier women’s soccer league, consisting of 37 teams playing in three conferences (Eastern, Central, Western) and five divisions. Washington (12-1-1), vying for its first championship since winning the 2003 Women’s United Soccer Association Founder’s Cup, will meet the winner of Wednesday’s playoff play-in game, between the Toronto Lady Lynx (7-3-2) and the Laval Comets (7-4-1) of the Northern Division, Saturday for a spot in Sunday’s Eastern Conference final. The Eastern Conference champion will advance to the W-League Final Four Aug. 4-5 in Rochester, N.Y.

‘‘It’s nice to get the regular season finished,” Freedom coach Jim Gabarra said. ‘‘Any time we’ve asked [these women] to get a result, they’ve managed to do it. It’s not always been pretty, but the most important thing is to get the result... .

‘‘We’ve been looking to playoffs all year. It’s going to be a long trip, hard competition and we’re looking forward to it.”

All the Freedom’s regular-season games have been against division opponents, so the team doesn’t know much about their playoff opponents. But that doesn’t matter much. The Freedom is more worried about what it can control; its own play.

Aside from a mid-season hiccup in a 3-0 loss to the Jersey Sky Blue (12-2-0, second in the Northeast Division), Washington has utterly dominated its W-League foes.

The Freedom’s front line is speedier, craftier and technically savvier than any of the their opponents have been. Led by 2005 U.S. National Team leading scorer Christie Welsh, who’s tallied nine goals this season, including one in Saturday’s win, fellow forwards Ali Andrzejewski (team-high 12 goals) and Kele Golebiowski, who each scored a goal Sunday, and midfielders Lori Lindsey, Rebecca Moros and Jill Porto (the latter two scored a goal apiece Saturday), Washington uses the width of the field effectively to scatter opponents’ defenses and open up scoring lanes. At times it’s struggled to convert on those chances, but the Freedom has done a good job overall, outscoring its opponents 50-10, and 16-2 in its final five regular-season matches.

And it’s high-flying offense is backed by a solid defensive line, led by Alex Singer, who scored a goal Saturday, Sarah Senty and goalkeeper Kati Jo Spisak, who’s recorded nine shutouts this season.

In addition to the tangibles, the Freedom has a lot of big-game experience to rely on. Most of its players are top collegiate athletes. And Welsh and Lindsey, among others, bring National Team and WUSA experience to the field. And that should prove beneficial, and could make the difference, in clutch situations during playoffs.

‘‘A couple of the other teams have some good international players,” Gabarra said. ‘‘But I do think we have more [national team players and former professional players]. I think anytime you have experience it’s going to help.”

It’s been a long, arduous season, nearly four months of intense training and competition. And though the Freedom has taken its season one game at a time, it’s always had playoff aspirations lingering in its mind. And now that it’s earned that coveted playoff berth, just four victories stand between the Freedom and its first championship in four years.

‘‘Getting into the Eastern Conference Championships is just another step along the way,” Gabarra said. ‘‘We just want to stay within ourselves. We know we just have to win four more games to win the championship. But we’re just going to take it one game at a time, like we have been.”