WUSA: Prinz leads Carolina to thrilling Founders Cup triumph

By Scott French, Senior Editor
in Atlanta

Birgit Prinz, an unstoppable force since first stepping foot on a WUSA field, was more than the Washington Freedom's defense could deal with Saturday afternoon, scoring one goal and creating another to give the Carolina Courage the Founders Cup II championship.

The Courage completed a remarkable worst-to-first campaign by dominating Washington early, striking twice near the start of the second half, then holding off the Freedom's furious pressure in the waning minutes to earn a 3-2 victory.

Prinz, tossing aside the attention of Freedom man-marker supreme Carrie Moore, set up Danielle Fotopoulos' goal in the 53rd minute, then stripped defender Jen Grubb and beat goalkeeper Siri Mullinix 1-on-1 in the 58th as the Courage took charge of a 1-1 game despite second-half superstar Mia Hamm's presence.

Hege Riise also scored for Carolina, which stopped Washington's five-game winning and 10-game unbeaten streaks in a stirring finale on a sweltering afternoon before 15,321 at Morris Brown College's Herndon Stadium.

Prinz, a German striker who joined the Courage after leading FFC Frankfurt to the European club championship in late May, was selected MVP of the match. Fotopoulos, Riise and defender Nel Fettig played roles in the victory nearly as pivotal.

''We won as a team,'' Prinz said. ''I could not have won the MVP without the play of my teammates.''

The Freedom, which played sensational soccer over the final two months of the season to climb to third place in the WUSA standings -- just two points off the regular-season champion Courage -- managed just four shots on goal, all from the 64th minute on, after Carolina had taken a 3-1 lead.

An own goal by Fotopoulos in the 31st minute and an exquisite strike by Hamm in the 64th accounted for the Freedom's goals. With a little more fortune, it might have had another, or more.

Abby Wambach struck the post in the 40th minute -- the ball then bounced up and off Riise's hand, but referee Ricardo Salazar let play go on -- Bai Jie couldn't beat Luckenbill point-blank in the 67th, then got caught wrong-footed in the goalmouth in the 71st, Fettig beat Wambach to a rebound in the 82nd, and Erin Baxter got to a marvelous serve from Monica Gerardo in stoppage time.

It was a well-deserved victory for Carolina, which used midfielder Tiffany Roberts in a role more defensive than normal to counteract an ailing Riise's lack of mobility. The playmaker was slowed by a sort hamstring sustained in last week's semifinal win over Atlanta, but it didn't impact her effectiveness. She scored a fine goal in the 20th minute and restricted Washington midfielder Steffi Jones -- Prinz's former FFC Frankfurt teammate -- from switching the ball from side to side, limiting the Freedom's attacking capabilities.

Fettig, acquired off waivers from New York during the season, was flawless on the back line. Venus James, who also won a WUSA crown last year with the Bay Area (now San Jose) CyberRays, did a nice job matching Hamm's speed in the second half. Staci Wilson, an 84th-minute substitute for Unni Lehn, provided a late defensive spark, and Washington was able to get off only one shot in the her 10 minutes on the field after taking five in the previous 10 minutes. And Luckenbill, the WUSA's Goalkeeper of the Year, came up big on several occasions.

''I thought our midfield defended very well in the first half, as well as our back four,'' Carolina coach Marcia McDermott said. ''We wanted to deny Washington the opportunity to push the ball through the center of their midfield and force them to play the flanks.

''Individually, there were two performances that were very good. Luckenbill was big for us at the end of the game. Nel Fettig, from the beginning to the end of the game, was just notable for the entire time. We had some lapses as a team, but she did not and held us together through some tough spots.''

Washington found no rhythm until a half-hour had passed, by which time it was down a goal. The Courage's 20th-minute strike came from a wonderful sequence, with Staci Burt sending a long ball from near midfield to Fotopoulos at the top of the Freedom box. Fotopoulos, one of the WUSA's best aerial attackers, nodded the ball to the right, where Riise ran unimpeded. Her shot, just beyond the 6-yard box at an angle, beat Mullinix to the near post.

The Freedom tied it 11 minutes later. A free kick from Grubb 40 yards out sailed toward the right post, where Wambach was stationed. The WUSA Rookie of the Year was kept from the ball by Fotopoulos, who couldn't avoid the ball -- it deflected off her leg and just inside the right post.

Hamm's second-half wizardry has defined Washington's surge the last half of the season, and she came on for Ann Cook at the break. It was Carolina that took control, with Prinz the difference as the Courage opened a two-goal lead.

Fotopoulos, left alone in front, got the go-ahead goal, stuffing home the rebound after Mullinix got her body to Prinz's 17-yard blast in the 53rd minute. Prinz made it 3-1 five minutes later, sneaking in from behind on Grubb, blocking her attempted clearance, then angling in on Mullinix unopposed. She slotted it inside the right post as the keeper dove the other way.

''Prinz is tough to defend,'' Grubb said. ''You can defend her for 85 minutes, but she's too good -- who knows what can happen in a five-minute spell? She's too good and too creative not to get chances.''

Grubb blamed herself for Prinz's tally, saying that settling the ball before clearing it ''wasn't a good decision.'' Teammates failed her by not alerting her to Prinz's presence.

Washington applied strong pressure the final half-hour, mostly through Hamm, who attacked from the left flank. She scored the goal of the game, one of the best of the season, to pull the Freedom within a goal in the 64th minute.

Hamm took a long diagonal ball from Wambach to the left of the Courage box, then eluded defender Staci Burt, cutting inside for a hard right-footed shot that curled around Luckenbill and settled in the far-post side netting.

Washington had several opportunities to tie the score, none better than Bai's chances four minutes apart.

WUSA FOUNDERS CUP II
at Herndon Stadium, Morris Brown College
Atlanta

Carolina 3 Washington 2. Goals: Riise (Fotopoulos, S. Burt) 20, Fotopoulos (Prinz, James) 53, Prinz 58; own goal Fotopoulos 31, Hamm (Wambach) 64.

Carolina -- Luckenbill; S. Burt, Fettig, Baxter, Slaton; Lehn (Wilson, 84), T. Roberts, O'Hanley (James, 46), Riise; Fotopoulos, Prinz.

Washington -- Mullinix; S. Little, C. Moore, Grubb, Barr (Milburn, 84); Jones, Cook (Hamm, 46); Pu, Makinen (J. Little, 62); Bai (Gerardo, 72), Wambach.

Yellow cards -- Carolina: Lehn 38; Washington: Wambach 41, Bai 55.

Referee -- Ricardo Salazar. A -- 15,321.

MVP -- Birgit Prinz (Carolina).

WUSA Champions
2001 -- Bay Area CyberRays 2002 -- Carolina Courage

PLAYOFF SCORING LEADERS
(G-A--Pts)

1. Danielle Fotopoulos (Carolina) 2-2--6
2. Birgit Prinz (Carolina) 1-2--4
3. Monica Gerardo (Washington) 1-0--2
Mia Hamm (Washington) 1-0--2
Carla Overbeck (Carolina) 1-0--2
Hege Riise (Carolina) 1-0--2 Nikki Serlenga (Atlanta) 1-0--2
8. Staci Burt (Carolina) 0-1--1
Venus James (Carolina) 0-1--1
Jacqui Little (Washington) 0-1--1
Abby Wambach (Washington) 0-1--1
Pu Wei (Washington) 0-1--1

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