Aug. 24, 2002
ATLANTA - Birgit Prinz's unassisted goal in the 58th minute proved to be the game winner as the Carolina Courage captured Founders Cup II, 3-2 over the Washington Freedom. Prinz added an assist on Carolina's go-ahead goal five minutes earlier, and was named Most Valuable Player of the match. Freedom super-sub Mia Hamm scored the game's final, and most spectacular goal, but her effectiveness was limited when the Courage struck twice in five minutes to open up a 3-1 lead.
"It was a great game for the fans," said Courage coach Marcia McDermott, the architect of the club's worst to first ascent. "Congratulations to Washington. What a great game they played today."
The match began at a physical but acceptable pace, and neither team developed any remarkable, early chances. The best of the early chances, a poor angle shot by Unni Lehn, was knocked to safety by Siri Mullinix in the 12th minute.
Carolina never trailed in the match, first taking the lead through all-WUSA midfielder Hege Riise. Right back Staci Burt took advantage of an acre of space on the right flank and served the ball to the top of the penalty area. Danielle Fotopoulos offered a perfect flick that put Riise in alone against Mullinix. Riise slotted the ball past the Freedom keeper for the first goal of the title match.
"I know that whenever Danielle Fotopoulos gets the ball on her head for a flick, I better be there," Riise said. "She's going to win it nine out of every 10 times."
The Courage had the better of the soccer over the first 45 minutes. Center backs Nel Fettig and Erin Baxter anchored a defense that held the Freedom to a single shot on goal in the first half. Unfortunately for the Courage, the Freedom equalized without shooting when Fotopoulos accidentally deflected a serve beyond Kristin Luckenbill for the first own goal in Founders Cup history.
"Of course I planned it," deadpanned Jen Grubb, who drove a free kick from near the midstripe that Fotopoulos redirected while trying to mark Abby Wambach.
"That's our target area," said head coach Jim Gabarra. "You have to serve the ball in there and we've been getting great service from Jen all season."
Hamm came on for Ann Cook in the second half, but it was the Courage that stole the show at the other side of the break. The play started when Hamm lost the ball to a slide tackling Lehn. In the end, Prinz was able to shoot from inside the 18-yard box. Mullinix made the save, but Fotopoulos controlled the rebound and buried the goal that put the Courage on top for good.
"I know when Birgit is going to shoot, something is going to happen," said Fotopoulos, giving Prinz similar praise that she was given by Riise. "I followed up the shot and ended up in the right place at the right time. And it went in."
Fotopoulos' goal was scored in the 53rd minute, and five minutes later, a rare defensive miscue by Grubb allowed Prinz to walk in on Mullinix for an easy goal.
"It was a bad decision," Grubb said of a play that saw Prinz swoop in and intercept what should have been a basic serve into the midfield. "At the spot I was on the field, 20, 23 yards out, it's not really a good time to settle the ball and try to play it out. But, it happened. That's how it goes."
The Freedom offered credit to the Courage for the flurry that put it into a lead it would never relinquish.
"I think mostly you have to give credit to Carolina," goalkeeper Siri Mullinix said. "We for one can't leave Prinz and Fotopoulos open like that. I just have to give a round of applause to those two players. They had their two chances and they finished them."
After falling behind 3-1, the Freedom seemed to momentarily let down. But Hamm would not let its title hopes fade so quickly. Abby Wambach gave Hamm a ball on the left flank, just wide of the penalty box. Hamm made short work of Burt, then shot a brilliant shot beyond the reach of Luckenbill, and likely any other goalkeeper on the planet.
The Freedom never stopped pressing ahead in search of the equalizer, coming tantalizingly close on a few occasions. In the 77th minute, Luckenbill's punt went directly to Wambach, who just as quickly tried to thread the needle to Jacqui Little. Luckenbill rushed out to bother Little enough that her shot rolled wide of its mark.
"A defensive adjustment we made," offered McDermott, "was to put Staci Wilson in as a second defensive mid, and ask her to always make sure we provide cover against (Hamm) on the flank. She did a great job."
McDermott praised her entire defense, and was particularly fond of the game played by center back Nel Fettig.
"Nel Fettig from the beginning of the game to the end of the game was notable," McDermott said. "We had some lapses, but she had no lapses, and she held us together through some tough spots. But our entire defense was organized."
Gabarra and the Freedom refused to hang their heads in defeat, the club's first in 63 days.
"I'm extremely proud of what the Washington Freedom put on the field this season, and especially today," he said. "It was a very exciting game, and my hat goes off to Carolina. I think it was a statement for what this league can put on the field."