The summer games in London are right around the corner, but for the U.S. women’s national team the tournament is about more than a gold medal. It is a chance to put behind them the disappointing loss in last year’s Women’s World Cup and try to reclaim the mantle of the best team in the world. Despite the loss to Japan last year, this is not a Herculean feat; the amount of young talent maturing on this team mixed with proven veteran leadership like Abby Wambach should make the U.S. the favorites in this tournament. However, a familiar hindrance is raising its head days before the game, and one of the U.S.’s best weapons could again be flashing her dark side.
Hope Solo is quickly becoming the face of this team. She’s attractive, friendly to fans, confident, outspoken, and a damned good soccer player. Her appearance on Dancing With the Stars put her in front of a number of non-soccer fans and gained her even more celebrity. Without a doubt she is the best women’s keeper in the world and arguably could start for some MLS teams today. Having her between the pipes is one of the big reasons the U.S. is a favorite in this tournament, and her loss on the field could be near catastrophic. But as always it is her off-the-field antics that are causing problems for the team, and it is reaching the point where U.S. Soccer and her coach have to seriously consider whether she is worth the headache.
It is important to recap her history to put the latest incidents in context. Back in 2007, in an incident many U.S. fans have conveniently forgotten, then up-and-coming keeper Solo was famously involved in a major keeper controversy. Head coach Greg Ryan had pulled Solo out of the starting lineup before the big semifinal versus Brazil and replaced her with veteran Briana Scurry, one of the heroes of the 1999 World Cup. The move backfired massively and the U.S. entered a period of soccer parity with a number of other countries. After the match, Solo made this famous comment to reporters:
“It was the wrong decision, and I think anybody that knows anything about the game knows that,” Solo said. “There’s no doubt in my mind I would have made those saves.
“And the fact of the matter is it’s not 2004 anymore. . . . It’s 2007, and I think you have to live in the present.
“And you can’t live by big names. You can’t live in the past. It doesn’t matter what somebody did in an Olympic gold-medal game in the Olympics three years ago. Now is what matters, and that’s what I think.”
The comments were chalked up to youth, Greg Ryan was let go and new coach Pia Sundhage saw Solo’s talent outweighing her mouth. Since that incident, the keeper has been on pretty good behavior and built her brand to the point where she is now on equal footing with teammate Wambach as being the face of the women’s soccer team. But Solo cannot seem to keep quiet and two published pieces threaten to destroy team unity right before the Olympics.
The first was an article printed in ESPN The Magazine’s “Body Issue” about sex in the Olympic village. She is quoted extensively in the article, relaying observations about the exploits of fellow Olympians and the lifestyle in the village; she even throws in an anecdote from the last Olympics about her exploits with an unnamed celebrity. But what is most damning is her stories about her teammates. After recounting her own closing night activities, she shares this behind-the-scenes information:
“When we were done partying, we got out of our nice dresses, got back into our stadium coats and, at 7 a.m. with no sleep, went on the Today show drunk. Needless to say, we looked like hell.“
Athletes having sex (and lots of it) is not shocking. Athletes doing interviews in, um, altered states or on little sleep is not shocking. But going on record and naming a specific incident is shocking, and an absolute violation of a locker room code that says what happens with teammates should stay with teammates. This story and this quote does nothing to really help the team’s brand but it does help the Solo brand. If I was a teammate, I would be none too pleased that my starting keeper is sharing how drunk I was on a major interview on a major network.
But this can be forgiven – interviews tend to sometimes reveal things that are unsavory and teams can forgive more outspoken superstars, especially if they are contributors on the field. What is harder to forgive is a tell-all biography. Beau Dure has a good summary of the pre-release reviews of the tell-all autobiography, which mainly focuses on her rough family life and sad relationship with her father. It’s her memories of the 2007 World Cup that will raise eyebrows as seemingly she will give her own, unedited perspective behind those famous quotes. If what she told Andrew Romano is any indication of what the book will contain, it will be a doosy:
“With guys, there might have been a couple of shoves into the locker. It would have been like, ‘Man, f–k you.’ But I don’t think there would have been personal attacks. And there definitely wouldn’t have been this follow-the-leader thing, where everyone just goes along with the popular players. We’re professional athletes. The goal should be to win.”
That goes beyond sharing a little gossip – that is directly trashing teammates and former teammates still involved with the team. While the book will come out after the Olympics, these quotes have to be known by the team and Solo is again making training sessions quite uncomfortable. Sundhage is now in the same place as Ryan, having to make the decision on what to do with an immensely talented but lightening rod player. She can hope it doesn’t ruin locker room chemistry and that winning solves all problems, with Solo being the team’s best chance to win by far. But what if this team doesn’t find gold, and what if just like 2007 it underachieves?
Now is what matters, and that’s what I think.
Questions will have to be answered, and the number one question will be: is Hope Solo worth it?
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