Diehard U.S. Soccer fans, prepare to feel conflicted.
A bunch of you will watch this evening as the United States women begin chasing a Women’s World Cup crown that has been frustratingly elusive since 1999. There’s the sunny side of life today, one that quickens the Yankee Doodle pulse.
But at some point most of us will squirm uncomfortably as the real world intrudes, and American soccer fans will feel conflicted about cheering for the country’s star goalkeeper Hope Solo.
Should you feel conflicted? Of course you should. This is tough stuff all the way around.
Troubled individuals such as Solo put us in uncomfortable places. If you are close to the situation, like Solo’s U.S. teammates and the broadcasters now in Canada hoping they can get back to soccer and griping about FIFA’s sexist choice to play on artificial turf, they put you in terrible positions. At the very least, they force all of us to remember that life gets messy.
We know this to be true, of course, that the world gets complicated. But does it have to interrupt our happy soccer times? Why can’t the tough stuff in life be placed more conveniently? Why can’t we just keep the music going and enjoy the Women’s World Cup party? I mean, they get bulk sized attention only once every couple of years, right? Can’t we just salute our heroines and enjoy some good soccer?
Well, we can’t, because the bad stuff in life is inconvenient by definition.
Here’s another reality, one more truth that may not sit well: this is on U.S. Soccer. They should have long ago cut ties with Solo. She is drama and distraction waiting to happen and has been for years. All of this was avoidable.
Yes, Solo is head and shoulders above whatever nominal competition she has for the No. 1 spot. But let the debate begin on addition by subtraction, because when you keep figures like Solo around, you risk team chemistry, you run the risk of this very thing happening. U.S. manager Jill Ellis gambled; U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati provided Ellis the latitude, so he is implicitly responsible, too.
Not that U.S. men’s team manager Jurgen Klinsmann has gotten every decision correct, but knowing how he feels about “givers” and “takers” in life and in his player pool, and seeing how certain, talented figures have been relegated conspicuously to the margins, I have a strong suspicion that Solo would have long been jettisoned if he were in charge of the women’s team.
Before you take umbrage at any of that, ask yourself: Would we even have this discussion if Solo weren’t the best goalkeeper in the world?
Of course not. Don’t be a hypocrite here. Admit it: it’s always a sliding scale, isn’t it? We make allowances for talent, don’t we? It’s something we don’t like to talk about in polite company. But then along comes someone like Solo, linked to really bad stuff, slamming heads into the floor and swinging harmful fists at relatives.
But, uh … well … we’re in the so-called Group of Death, aren’t we? We need the best players out there. So we wince a little while sliding the scale just a little further toward tolerance.
Even if you don’t believe the troubling allegations made in Sunday’s Outside the Lines report, there is a history of bad choices and unnecessary theater around Solo.
It’s difficult, because we hope to see people get their lives sorted out; we would love to see Solo tame her demons and self-destructive tendencies. So plenty of fans will lean on the old saw that “people like this need help.” That her best chance of avoiding trouble is through the loving, caring, built-in support network within the U.S. women’s soccer team.
But they aren’t running a recovery program; that’s not U.S. Soccer’s mission.
Sure, it would it be better (read: easier, more comfortable) if we were talking more about the underrated Carli Lloyd, about Sydney Leroux and Abby Wambach and the team’s relentless drive to overcome the heartbreak of 2011. Wouldn’t life be less tangled if the biggest worry in U.S. camp was Alex Morgan’s sketchy knee? Yeah, of course it would. But that’s a life planned, not a life of random events and consequences, which is closer to the truth.
I’m seeing a lot of criticism aimed at media, most of it not even close to being justified. Believe me: you want legitimate news outlets reporting news, period. You can quibble with the precise timing of ESPN’s report, but if you are reading this, then you are an adult (or getting there quickly), and you do not need “protection” from the darker corners of celebrity culture.
When new revelations of an ugly incident involving a public figure come to light, that is clearly “news.” And if that upsets you, well, it’s an upsetting situation for everyone – which brings us back to why Solo shouldn’t be with the team right now.
So media members are forced to ask questions they would prefer not to; most of writers and broadcasters in Canada are there because they love soccer, and they hate that they are dealing with this mess. (And before you say, “So why are they doing it?” … Well, because they are professionals who are doing their jobs. That’s why.)
It puts the players in bad positions. They say they are focused on the opener, and I’m sure that’s true. But they can’t completely escape distraction, so when asked about Solo’s issues they feel compelled to be, well, let’s go with “something less than honest.”
Of course they hear about this stuff; you simply cannot build a completely impenetrable bubble, not in today’s connected world.
It has certainly put FOX Sports in an awkward position; read Richard Deitsch’s excellent analysis of the FOX Sports talent’s squishy positioning here. In that piece he quotes former U.S. midfielder Leslie Osborne, who is now on the FOX broadcast team: “… We are now at the World Cup. Why are we focusing on Hope Solo and what she did previously? Right now, we are focusing on what their job is and what they are going to do to be successful in this tournament.”
At best, that’s PR spin from the rights holder. At worst – I don’t know Osborne, so I hate to be harsh – it’s a naïve response that simply does not convey the serious weight of this stuff. Again, it’s inconvenient. But that’s life. We can plan and we can hope, but in the end we cannot fully arrange convenience.
The U.S. Women’s soccer program has long made attempts to operate in some sort of world of perfect Pollyanna, which is understandable. Young boys have plenty of athletic heroes to emulate; young girls have fewer of them, so there has always been a commendable effort to paint these ladies as pillars of virtue, hard work and achievement. Some of them are.
But you cannot have it both ways. You cannot get the swell TV contract – FOX Sports’ coverage, beyond this part, has been outstanding – and take your turn in the A-list publicity churn, but then want everyone to play dumb when the inevitable human failures happen.
A lot of U.S. soccer players, men and women, past and present, embody everything you’d want in world class athletes, caring of the people and the world around them, strong in the right places and nothing less than fierce when they need to be.
Plenty of members of Ellis’ squad deserve that framing – but not all of them. These are humans after all, fallen and imperfect, as we know, inconvenient as it is when we just want to enjoy some patriotism and some good soccer.
Editor’s note: Steve Davis writes a weekly column for World Soccer Talk. He shares his thoughts and opinions on US and MLS soccer topics every Wednesday, as well as news reports throughout the week. You can follow Steve on Twitter at @stevedavis90. Plus, read Steve’s other columns on World Soccer Talk.
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