Just how much more rope is U.S. Soccer willing to give Hope Solo?
Apparently some, but not much. She’s back in the women’s national team squad to compete in the annual Algarve Cup, her 30-day suspension having conveniently expired in time for her to travel to Portugal. The USA women face Norway, Switzerland and Iceland in preliminary play, then conclude the competition in a placement game against an opponent to be determined.
None of those three group opponents are threats to win the Women’s World Cup in Canada this June, but in its placement game the U.S. will likely face one of the favorites. Germany, Japan, Brazil and France are all potential foes and will be confident of beating the USA with or without Solo. The latter two nations have beaten the USA within the last three months.
The USA has many issues to address leading up to the World Cup, yet Solo’s return and long-term future with the national team will command great attention. Would her absence significantly lessen the women’s chances to win a third World Cup? Depending on how you define “significantly,” I would say yes, simply because she’s significantly better than her rivals for the No. 1 shirt. Ashlyn Harris and Alyssa Naeher, who are on the Algarve Cup roster, and Nicole Barnhart, who isn't, are very good, but they aren’t Hope Solo.
The federation is in a very tough spot; she’s an outstanding athlete whose resume is pockmarked by disputes with teammates and legal skirmishes, and her latest run-in with the law and subsequent suspension won’t soon fade from the public forum. A fair portion of the U.S. Soccer community has expressed the view Solo shouldn’t be on the team at all, but on what justifiable grounds could the federation kick her off it?
As yet, her train-wreck personal life hasn’t affected performance. She’s definitely guilty of bad judgment and poor choices and -- assuming she doesn’t veer off the rails again -- will be on the federation’s version of double-secret probation until early July, when the World Cup ends. The saga won’t necessarily end there; at 33, she’s certainly capable of representing the U.S. next year at the 2016 Olympic Games, again assuming U.S. Soccer gives her that opportunity.
I’m as mystified by Solo as anybody else. On the field, she’s amazing. Off the field, she’s confounding. If even if she doesn’t seek out trouble – as per her bitter comments about being benched for the 2007 World Cup semifinal against Brazil – it seems to find her. She failed a drug test prior to the 2012 Olympics, she had a run-in with her husband in 2012 and married him the next day, and the soap opera goes on and on.
She’s not just a good keeper, she’s a great one, by far the most athletic and dynamic goalie to play the world’s game at the top level. She’s also fearless and decisive and sure-handed and powerful in the air, factors that separate her from most of her counterparts. She’s latest in a line of exceptional U.S. goalies. Dating back to the days of Mary Harvey, who played every minute when the Americans won the first women’s world championship in 1991, strength in goal has been a trademark of this program.
Solo's range, reflexes, quickness, bravery, and foot skills are unsurpassed. She and Nadine Angerer of Germany are the world’s best. It’s the recurring problems off the field that cast Solo into shadow.
Last month U.S. Soccer sent Solo home from a training camp and issued the suspension after police arrested her husband, Jerramy Stevens, for driving under the influence while behind the wheel of a van rented by U.S. Soccer. Solo, a passenger in the van, wasn’t charged but still U.S. Soccer suspended her. It also gave her specific instructions about her behavior going forward. Without supplying details, federation president Sunil Gulati and head coach Jill Ellis told reporters on a conference call that “there are a number of things that Hope is being asked to do.” Behavioral and substance counseling are believed to be among them but nothing has been confirmed.
Presumably, she’s done them. Regardless, she’s been reinstated to play at the Algarve Cup, where her performance last year raised some concerns. She had a few shaky moments in a 5-3 loss to Denmark and though her status as one of the world’s top female goalies is intact, she recently let a savable goal slither under her body in a 3-2 loss to Brazil Dec. 14. Harris was in goal when the Americans lost to France, 2-0, Feb. 8 in Lorient.
The federation opted not to discipline Solo last June in the wake of assault charges filed by her half-sister after Kirkland, Wash. police responded to a 911 call regarding a domestic dispute. Police arrested Solo after the half-sister and Solo’s nephew claimed the goalkeeper had attacked them.
She was to face two counts of assault in a trial scheduled to start Jan. 14, but those charges were dropped. Prosecutors cited inconsistencies in statements and lack of cooperation from the half-sister and nephew. A week later in Southern California, Stevens was arrested and the federation issued the suspension.
There can’t be any more last chances for Solo. If she screws up again, the federation can dismiss her with good and sufficient cause, to which that strident segment of fans would proclaim, “Good riddance!” The tricky question will be what to do if she plays well in Canada.
Whatever else she is, Solo is a warrior. She endured months of painful rehabilitation to heal and strengthen a rebuilt shoulder before the 2011 Women's World Cup and sat out three months with a painful wrist injury in 2013 that caused her to miss the Algarve Cup. She was in the nets when the USA lost to Japan on penalty kicks in the 2011 Women’s World Cup final and again a year later for the redemptive 2-1 victory that won the Olympic gold medal.
She's far removed from her youth, but a rough, angry childhood formed a manhole-cover sized chip on her shoulder. Her mother struggled with alcohol problems, her father bounced in and out of her life before he died of a heart attack two months before the 2007 World Cup. She sprinkled his ashes in her goalmouth before each game at that tournament. Her life growing up was nothing like the comfortable, suburban stereotype of an elite American player.
In her book, “Solo: A Memoir of Hope” she states one of her greatest motivations is proving people wrong. Between now and July 5, the date of the Women’s World Cup final, she can prove a lot to a lot of people, one way or the other. The rope is in her hands.