On Sunday, the Washington Spirit will be playing in the NWSL final against the Western New York Flash, looking to win a trophy for the first time in the club’s four year history. After stuttering in the semi-final stage of the playoffs in 2014 and 2015, the Spirit finally got over the bump last Friday, beating the Chicago Red Stars through Francisca Ordega’s extra time goal at the Maryland SoccerPlex.
This isn’t the first time that the Washington area has been represented in a top women’s league final. The Washington Freedom, who played in the Women’s United Soccer Association - the first attempt at establishing a pro league for women - appeared in two of the three Founder’s Cups, losing the 2002 edition to the Carolina Courage.
But the Freedom made the most of their second opportunity in 2003, winning the Founder’s Cup, with Abby Wambach scoring the golden goal for the Freedom in a 2-1 win over the Atlanta Beat. Nancy Augustyniak was sent off in the 94th minute for taking Wambach down just outside the box, with Mia Hamm finding the woodwork from the resulting free kick.
Shortly after, Wambach, who had earlier headed the Freedom ahead with a classic Abby goal in the 7th minute, slotted home in the 96th minute. This was back in the golden goal era, so Wambach’s goal was an instant game-winner.
It was redemption for the Freedom, who had lost the year before to the Courage, 3-2. German superstar Birgit Prinz tallied the winning goal for the Courage in ‘02, despite Hamm getting the Freedom within a goal just a few minutes later.
Undeterred, Jim Gabarra’s side - yes, the same Jim Gabarra leading the Spirit to the NWSL final - was right back in the Founder’s Cup, having prevailed 3-1 in penalties over the Boston Breakers in the semi-finals. Conversions from Jennifer Meier, Jacqui Little, and Hamm were enough to send the Freedom to the final against the Beat after a scoreless 120 minutes.
In the final, it took little time for the Freedom to get their noses ahead. Wambach, then just a 23 year old second year pro, made the most of Sandra Minnert’s left-footed cross, bouncing a header in at the near post, past USA legend Brianna Scurry. It was a goal that would become a staple of Wambach’s repertoire over the years, but on August 24, 2003, it gave the Freedom their first lead in a Founder’s Cup.
The Freedom though couldn’t quite make it to halftime with a lead, as referee Terry Vaughn blew his whistle for a penalty in the last minute of the first half. Leslie Gaston cut in from the left into the Freedom box, and Vaughn spotted a foul as Gaston went down from a challenge by Little. Charmaine Hooper made no mistake from the spot, with Freedom keeper Siri Mullinix rooted to her spot as the Beat leveled the score going into the second half.
Neither side found the winning goal in the second half, and the fireworks started early in the extra period to decide the game. A long ball from the back line in the 94th minute created a footrace between Wambach and Augustyniak for a ball headed towards the goal. Wambach was taken down by Augustyniak, and even though the Freedom had the ball in the back of the net shortly after, Vaughn had already blown his whistle, and showed Augustyniak a straight red for a denial of an obvious goal scoring opportunity.
Wambach argued for a penalty, but the free kick was instead given, and Hamm slammed her effort off the bar, with Scurry patiently collecting as the ball dropped back down from the stratosphere.
It only took another minute though before the Freedom claimed their first Founder’s Cup trophy. From her own half, Little picked out the run of Meier, who just stayed onside as the Beat were playing a high line near midfield. Meier made her way towards the box, and sent a low cross to the back post, where Wambach half-volleyed a shot past Scurry for the 2-1 win.
The highs of victory unfortunately were short-lived for the Freedom, who ended up being WUSA’s final champion. Later that year, the US hosted the 2003 World Cup, after FIFA moved the event following the SARS scare in China. Despite this, just before the World Cup began, the WUSA suspended operations, and the league would never return to play again.
The Freedom stuck around though, guided by Gabarra. When Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) formed in 2009, the Freedom resumed competing for silverware. The Freedom made the playoffs in 2009 and 2010, but fell in the first round both times. And then after the 2010 season, Dan Borislow bought the Freedom, renamed them magicJack (the same name as the VOIP device he invented), and moved the team to Florida. WPS lasted just another year, with the league’s legal battles with magicJack a contributing factor.
Here are the highlights of the 2003 Founder’s Cup.