Wednesday July 13, 2011

Telly Halkias

As the U.S. women’s soccer team prepares to face off against Japan in this weekend’s FIFA Women’s World Cup final, one player found redemption in a way that may lead the Americans to their first title since 1999.

Last Sunday, U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo came full circle from having been persona non grata on her own team four years ago. Her acrobatic and fearless play allowed the Americans stay close after falling behind, even though down a player due an apparently unfair ejection. Then they tied the game in injury time of overtime with the latest goal in WWC history.

During the deciding shootout against a heavily favored Brazilian squad, and in what might have been the defining moment of Solo’s career, her catlike penalty kick save propelled the U.S. into the semifinals. On Wednesday, they dispatched France to reach the deciding match.

But all wasn’t once so rosy for Hope Solo.

In 2007, U.S. coach Tom Ryan played a hunch and decided to bench Solo in favor of veteran goalie Brianna Scurry in a decisive WWC semi-final match against Brazil. The move was unprecedented at that level of competition, and Ryan risked backlash -- even dismissal -- if it failed.

Brazil’s 4-0 drubbing of the U.S. was convincing for a number of soccer-specific reasons, but not for Solo’s absence.


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Following the loss, Ryan was primed for media crucifixion but Solo bailed him out.

Despite being advised by a U.S. Soccer Federation official to lie low, Solo unloaded into the first microphone she saw. First she blasted her coach’s decision. Then Solo committed the cardinal sin of criticizing a teammate’s play by claiming that she could have made the saves that Scurry missed.

Smelling blood, sports journalists pounced. Solo, known for her spectacular athleticism and heavily marketed supermodel looks, became a pariah overnight. While debate over Ryan’s decision and her dissatisfaction ensued, the coach and the rest of the team handled themselves with grace following the debacle against Brazil.

Solo, however, came across as grabbing her toys and leaving the sandlot.

The Americans went on to take third place in the tournament, and Ryan, after a team vote on the matter, decided not to have Solo dress for the last game, let alone play. Calling out Scurry was inexcusable from a team standpoint and tactically inane. Had she kept her mouth shut, all the media attention would have been on Ryan’s coaching blunder. Instead, it focused on Solo’s egotism.

Ryan lost his job and the U.S. Soccer Federation hired former Swedish international star Pia Sundhage to succeed him. The new coach, a fiery competitor on the field but otherwise unassuming, realized that "don’t forget, but forgive" was the way this group of athletes should approach the Solo fiasco.

Credit the new coach: They did. For the last three years, Solo has been minding the nets and, more importantly, earning back her teammates’ trust. Along the way, they won an Olympic gold medal in 2008, and Solo had an impressive consecutive games scoreless streak.

But last Sunday, when her team was bending toward defeat and elimination, Solo was the inspirational backbone that kept them from breaking.

Solo’s restoration was significant. Other nations, with their increased support of female athletes, have leveled the playing field in the world’s most popular sport -- which has always been a male dominion in foreign cultures. While our competitive edge now seems diminished, women worldwide are reaping the rewards from American efforts to promote women’s sports -- specifically soccer -- for the last two decades.

So in another twist, Hope Solo’s journey from goat to hero called attention to the bigger picture of the women’s game and opportunities for women overseas. Four years ago, she deserved the scorn heaped upon her. Today, while some might never like her because of her misstep, she nevertheless has won back respect. 

Our women’s national soccer team has been a pioneer in the global experience of equal opportunity. They’ve set a course which has cut into the world’s most testosterone-laden cultures. In this context, Hope Solo is not on her own anymore. On a cohort of world class athletes, she is part of the family once again -- now its de facto leader.

Telly Halkias is a freelance writer and editor. E-mail him at tchalkias@aol.com.