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Football: Washington Freedom Faces Philadelphia Charge in WUSA Playoffs

The Washington Freedom face the Philadelphia Charge Saturday in the first round of the playoffs in the WUSA, the women's professional soccer (football) league in the United States. Last year, Washington did not qualify for post-season play, ending second to last in the eight-team league. Two players from China have helped make the Freedom more competitive this year.

Last year, Bai Jie was the only Chinese player on the Freedom. The addition of playmaking midfielder Pu Wei has helped her Chinese teammate, and the Washington soccer club. The Freedom finished in third place this season, with 11 wins, five losses and five ties.

Last year, Bai Jie started 18 of 21 games for the Freedom. She finished the season second on the team in points and goals scored, behind star Mia Hamm in both categories. Slowed by a knee injury this season, Bai has started only 11 games. But she scored the game winner in a recent match with the Atlanta Beat and is the team's third leading goal scorer. Coach Gabarra has high praise for Bai.

"Bai Jie is a real true warrior. She's technically very good and plays forward for her club team, played defender for years with the [Chinese] national team," the coach said. " She's a good two-way versatile player."

Only 22 years old, Pu Wei has started all but two games this year. She is second on the Washington team in assists, with eight. Coach Gabarra says Pu is a more versatile playmaker.

"Her strengths are her technical ability, finding the final pass and scoring chances. Her weaknesses are she needs to find the physical dimension of her game. She's still a young player," coach Gabarra said.

Bai feels the American pro league offers a different challenge than the pro league in China.

"I like it here. It's more competitive. Players are stronger and faster," she said. " It's a very good chance to improve my skills."

Bai and Pu are among eight Chinese soccer players in the WUSA. After this season, they will rejoin China's national team to prepare for World Cup qualifying. China hosts the 2003 women's World Cup, and will be aiming for the title after placing second to the USA at the last one in 1999.