I have admired Hope Solo for many reasons.
I’ve sent YouTube clips of Solo’s highlights to goalkeepers I’ve trained, because I believe that players learn more by imitating stars than from listening to coaches’ advice.
And I believe there’s no doubt that by example, Solo, the best known women’s soccer player since Mia Hamm, has raised the level of U.S. goalkeeping by inspiring young players.
For more than a decade, the USA has had a goalkeeper with athleticism and shot-stopping skills the world had never seen. One of the biggest criticisms of the women’s games had been the quality of goalkeeping -- and Solo destroyed every prejudice about female goalkeepers.
When I interviewed her by phone in 2009 for a youth soccer story, I found her insightful, friendly -- and good-humored despite me interrupting her on a Sunday afternoon to accommodate my deadline.
When the USA lost the 2011 World Cup final on penalty kicks to Japan, she was interviewed by ESPN on the field minutes after the game and responded so gracefully: “We lost to a great team. … I’m happy for them. They do deserve it.”
Two days after the game, on the “Late Show with David Letterman,” she relayed the anecdote about how Japanese midfielder Aya Miyama -- who scored and assisted -- instead of celebrating, came over to console Solo, a former teammate of hers with the Atlanta Beat.
"She wanted to show the Americans respect because she knew how much it hurt us," Solo said. "I had to tell her, 'Aya, you won the World Cup, the first time in your nation's history, celebrate please."
Four years before that, Solo gave the most infamous postgame interview in American soccer history after Coach Greg Ryan benched her in favor of Briana Scurry for 2007 World Cup semifinal against Brazil and the USA got blown out, 4-0. What Solo said got her kicked off the team for the bronze-medal game and pilloried by the press.
But I had no problem with what she did. In fact, I admired her for pointing out the obvious. What she said was the truth: “It was the wrong decision. And I think anybody who knows anything about the game knows that.”
To those who say Solo should have kept her thoughts to herself, I ask, How would you expect her to respond when a microphone was placed in front of her at the most disappointing moment of her career?
Ryan blew it, big time, when he benched his starting keeper who had only conceded three goals in the previous 13 games for a goalkeeper who saw just 45 minutes of action in the five months before the World Cup.
In 2012, I read the Solo memoir, co-written so superbly by Ann Killion, that recounts Solo’s childhood. Her house was “a battlefield, a war zone of screaming, swearing, and disrespect”; her absentee father was at times imprisoned and homeless. Soccer provided the sanctuary:
“Life was calm and ordered on the soccer field. … I felt free and unburdened when I was on the soccer field. … Luckily for me, I was growing up in a time when active little girls could finally turn to organized sports.”
And lucky for American soccer, that this tremendous athlete overcame challenges that we wouldn’t wish on anyone and became the greatest women’s goalkeeper the world has ever seen. Her talent has also made her a millionaire and ensured that she got breaks that less impressive players would not have been granted.
A lesser player would not have been retained by the national team amid domestic violence charges or after commandeering a team van with her drunk-driving husband.
Obviously, U.S. Soccer was worried that the USA couldn’t win the 2015 World Cup without her. A reasonable assumption to make. There were enough games, such as the 2008 Olympic final, that the USA would have lost with a weaker keeper.
Before the 2012 Olympics, her participation was jeopardized when she tested positive for a banned substance, Canrenone, but the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) accepted her excuse and cleared her.
Before the 2016 Games, Solo threatened not to go because of the Zika virus scare. Absolutely, her fears were legit, but Solo managed to insult the nation of Brazil with her Twitter posts. Thanks to Solo, the fans at each game cheered against the USA.
And she performed woefully in Brazil. Both goals she conceded in the 2-2 tie against Colombia should have been easy saves. The first, through her legs, was blooper-reel material, and on the second she failed to reach a high free kick that with better positioning would have been an easy catch or punch.
On Sweden’s goal in the quarterfinal that ousted the USA, she failed Goalkeeping 101 by not leaving her line early to cut down the angle.
In the penalty kick shootout, she repeated the unsporting attempt to “ice” the shooter as she had against the Germans at the 2015 World Cup before a penalty kick she saved in a regulation time victory.
She took that disdainful gamesmanship to a new level when she changed her gloves as Sweden’s Lisa Dahlkvist stepped up the spot.
As my colleague Paul Kennedy pointed out, “It wasn't hard for neutrals to cheer when Dahlkvist fired her penalty kick into the net for the winning goal.”
But I think Solo tested even U.S. fans, who had to be disappointed that the one known as the world’s best keeper resorted to such a tactic. It looked more a sign of weakness than a clever psyche.
If the USA had won that game, it would have been a victory with a stain. Or worse yet, there may have been praise for Solo’s behavior and we’d start seeing more of this kind of bad sportsmanship.
One of the wonderful traits of the U.S. women’s national team is that they have been such superb role models. And when I talk about role-model behavior, I am limiting my judgments here to what occurs on the field -- not personal life.
The U.S. women’s national team has world-class defenders who rarely foul, attacking players with flair and skill who entertain fans and inspire younger generations, and a World Cup-winning coach, Jill Ellis, with sideline demeanor I wish all youth coaches took note of.
Solo has given a lot to American soccer, but has hardly demonstrated any gratitude for the opportunities and breaks it as given her. She became the chief complainer about U.S. Soccer and the NWSL, which despite flaws provide the only professional opportunities for women soccer players in the USA.
U.S. Soccer announced its six-month suspension of Solo citing her postgame comment calling the Swedes “a bunch of cowards,” along with a reference to her previous transgressions.
But Solo’s “coward” comment only made it easier for U.S. Soccer to end a rocky relationship. And even if she hadn’t besmirched the USA’s Olympic appearance, her national team career was headed to an end because of what she offers on the field. She played poorly in Brazil and she’ll be pushing 37 by the time the USA returns to competitive play.
The reality of the sport is that Ellis would need to replace her with a younger keeper for her team’s next chapter. Which would be the case even if Solo had played better at the Olympics, if her gamesmanship hadn’t failed, if she didn’t insult Brazil and Sweden.
The latest news is that Solo is taking indefinite "personal leave" from her club team, the NWSL's Seattle Reign.
And I’m leafing through her memoir again. Where she recounts her fears of not being able to afford club soccer or the Olympic Development Program:
“If I couldn’t play ODP, if I couldn’t get a college scholarship, I was going to be stuck in Richland [Washington] my entire life. I was probably going to end up at Hanford, cleaning up nuclear waste.”
But her coaches and members of her community raised the money. And she landed at the University of Washington and became the first goalkeeper in history to play more than 200 national team games. And she won three gold medals and a World Cup.
So much of Hope Solo’s career has been an American soccer success story. I wish it had a better ending. And that she fares well without the sport that brought happiness to her childhood.