The Women's United Soccer Association is well into its second season without one of its most popular players. A knee injury has kept Mia Hamm from taking the field with her struggling team, the Washington Freedom. Hamm is expected to make her 2002 season debut this week, ending one of the most trying years of her spectacular career.
Mia Hamm is the top scorer in women's soccer history, with 129 goals in a 14-year international career. Last year, FIFA the world governing body for soccer voted her the first 'Women's Player of the Year'. But Hamm scored only six goals last season and barely made the league's top 10 scoring list. Emotionally drained and slowed by shoulder surgery during the off-season, she says she was not ready to play. "Last year I wasn't there psychologically," she said. "And physically, I wasn't fit. I was heavy."
The 2001 season was far from memorable for her teammates, as well. The Washington Freedom failed miserably in the league's first year, finishing seventh of eight teams. "It had been a long three years for a lot of us," said Mia Hamm. "Prior to the  World Cup, and the  Olympics, and not faring well in the Olympics, all of the off-season appearances and games we were doing. I was tired. I was burnt out on soccer. I just wanted to get away from pretty much anything physical. The [shoulder] injury gave me time to get away from it, but at the same time I didn't take care of my body the way I needed to"
Last season, Hamm felt knee pain that increased in the fall and winter. With fewer national team and league promotional appearances on her fall and winter schedule, Hamm spent the off-season working hard to regain her fitness.
But the nagging knee injury did not improve. With an eye on being ready for the 2003 World Cup qualifying that begins in October, Hamm opted for a late-February surgery to repair damaged cartilage in her knee. "We looked at the next year and a half to two years," she said. "There are some really important things going on. The season, World Cup qualifying, the World Cup next year. All these things I wanted to be a part of. I could have played this season in pain and not up to the level I need. The injury would not have gone away. I'll probably have a little pain playing, but I'll know it's getting better. I know I will be on the upside as opposed to the uncertainly of it."
Hamm returns as her team could use a boost. Nine games into a 21 game season, the Freedom sit in sixth place with two wins, four losses, and three ties. If the Freedom finish lower than fourth place, they will miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season. "Last year we didn't live up to the standards we set for ourselves," she said. "All we can do is try and learn from our mistakes last year."
Hamm is trying to be patient as she recovers from the knee surgery. "I don't help my team if I don't come back early and play at the level I want to," said Mia Hamm. "I'm not in it to set records. I'm in it to make sure when I am ready to come back, I help my team the best way that I can."
And Mia Hamm's fans hope she will be back for a long time to come.