Three years ago, you couldn’t turn anywhere and not see Mia Hamm. On billboards, on the cover of magazines, and in TV commercials with Michael Jordan. This kind of thing happens when America and the rest of the world embraces you as the poster girl for women’s soccer. It didn’t hurt that she’s attractive and had just guided the U.S. to the well-marketed and uber-popular 1999 Women’s World Cup on home soil. But almost three years later, Mia was M.I.A (yes, we’ve used this lame pun two issues in a row). “Where’s Mia?” “Oh, well, she’s injured.” “Where’s Mia?” “Oh, well, maybe she’ll play in the second half.” These were exchanges of soccer fans at U.S. Women’s National Team and WUSA games earlier this year. But after a rare bout with injury, Mia’s back kicking grass and taking names. This month, we look back at Mia’s difficult – but ultimately rewarding – 2002 season.
When the 2002 WUSA season started in early April, Washington Freedom forward Mia Hamm found herself in a very unfamiliar position -- on the outside looking in. Hamm's view from the Freedom bench was not due to suspension, a coach's decision or a new FIFA rule limiting the abuse of outmatched defenders. The culprit was her knee. More specifically, the articular cartilage inside her left knee, a supposedly smooth sheath of tissue that acts as a cushion, along with the meniscus, between the tibia and femur bones.
She had developed a small lesion in the articular cartilage, causing bone to rub on bone, which is as painful as it sounds, and had arthroscopic surgery at the end of February. The rehabilitation for such a procedure barred her from running for a good three months and thus Hamm found herself in place where you usually don't find players who have scored 133 career international goals -- handing water bottles to her teammates.
“It wasn't initially frustrating because I think I was well informed about what it would take to get back," said Hamm, who had suffered some painful knee and ankle injuries in her career, but never one that would keep her out for as many games as this one. "I knew it would take a good two to three months just to get back running and getting enough strength to play. And the running was one thing. Being strong enough to play and cut and kick, and handle pressure from another players, was another. I worked mostly on getting back my strength.”
The fact that Hamm possessed the patience of a veteran professional, a player with well over 200 international games and 15 years of experience at the highest levels, made her comeback methodical and disciplined, but it didn't mean there weren't hurdles along the way.
“The really frustrating part was hitting plateaus in your rehab,” she said. “One week you feel yourself getting better, then all of sudden you go from two or three weeks and you don't have gains in strength or agility, plus you feel a little pain that goes with the whole process.”
It didn't help that the Freedom struggled out of the gate, going 2-4-3 with Hamm on the sidelines.
“There was nothing I could do about it,” said Hamm. “I was doing everything I could in rehab. It was a matter of understanding when my body was going to be ready and when that time came, that the best decision would be made when I played, rather than rushing back to the field.”
She was ready on June 12 versus the Boston Breakers in the 10th game of the year. Hamm came off the bench at halftime, and in a drama worthy of a player who enjoys performing on the big stage, scored the winning goal in a 2-1 Freedom victory.
The Freedom would lose just one more regular season match, posting a 9-1-2 record with Mia in the lineup, finishing third in the league to advance to the playoffs, and upsetting the favored Philadelphia Charge in the semifinals before finally succumbing to the Carolina Courage, 3-2, in the WUSA championship game.
Along that stretch, Hamm surprisingly started just one game, becoming the most dangerous super-sub in WUSA history as she scored eight goals and had six assists in just 506 minutes of action, or not even six full matches. Her 22 points almost placed her in the top-10 in the WUSA despite only being available to play for half of the 2002 season.
“I would have loved to have played more and helped my team out more, but when I started feeling stronger, we hit a stretch in the schedule where we were playing every third or fourth day and it would have been tough for me to play 90 minutes,” said the pony-tailed living legend. “Then once we got into the playoffs, I knew that I didn't need to play 90 minutes, so I just kept playing my role off the bench.”
Imagine a defender, winded from 45 minutes of intense action, seeing a big 9 on the substitute cards as a fresh Hamm trotted on the field for the second half with a full tank of gas and a turbo-charged engine.
“I enjoyed coming off the bench," she admitted. "If the team was flat, I hope I was able to give the team a spark. Or if they were playing well, I just wanted to keep their confidence going.”
Hamm did such a good job, that along with her teammates -- German Steffi Jones, who also joined the team at midseason, revitalized goalkeeper Siri Mullinix and WUSA Rookie of the Year Abby Wambach -- the Freedom jumped from 7th place last year to the championship game.
“The biggest change was in our attitude," said Hamm. "Players came in and took more responsibility. They were fitter and more committed to wanting to make a difference. We were missing a few players at the beginning of the season due to injuries and other players stepped up. We took some hits at the beginning, but then we won some games and it gave us confidence.”
On July 21, playing in her first match for the USA since the Fall of 2001, Mia scored the final goal in a 4-0 win over Norway. In her second game back with the U.S. (Sept. 8 in Columbus), she exploded all over the field, notching her 10th career hat trick and dishing out three assists to almost single-handedly lift a sluggish U.S. squad to a lopsided 8-2 win over Scotland after being tied 2-2 at halftime. To put it simply, she was everywhere. Relentlessly pressuring opposing defenders, quickly pouncing on even the slightest defensive miscue, carrying the ball to the endline before dropping it off to a teammate for an easy finish and well, scoring goals. A nutmeg of the goalkeeper, a shot from an impossible angle and … The whole arsenal was in effect.
Scoring gives her confidence and a confident Hamm is extremely dangerous. It is that confidence that the Women's National Team is excited to see back heading into the 2002 NIKE U.S. Women's Cup and CONCACAF Women's Gold Cup in the fall.
Watch out world. Mia’s back.
Table of Contents
1) Armchair Midfielder (The Triple-Edged Sword: Class of 1991 vs. Class of 2002)
2) Word Association (w/ MNT defender Eddie Pope)
3) At the Movies (w/ WNT midfielder Aly Wagner)
4) Queries and Anecdotes (w/ MNT defender Gregg Berhalter)
5) Big Woman on Campus (w/ U-19 WNT defender Keeley Dowling)
6) Superstar!!! (w/ WNT forward Mia Hamm)
7) Mark That Calendar (2002 Nike U.S. Women’s Cup)
8) Point/Counterpoint (What Do YOU Know?!?)
9) "You Don’t Know Jack (Marshall)" (U.S. Open Cup trivia)
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