Solo no more: Goalkeeper regains starting spot and teammates' trust
QINHUANGDAO, China -- By all appearances, the hug is sincere. Two ponytails, two smiles, one quick lock. They don't have to be best friends, coach Pia Sundhage tells them. They can run and kick and expose their souls for 90 minutes, then adjourn for the day like business partners.
The well-traveled road from Qinhuangdao to Beijing is 4½ hours by bus, a slow crawl through green marshes, ginkgos and the occasional sheep, and this is the quick route to see the U.S. women's soccer team. Nineteen women have been isolated, far away from the glare of the Olympics, and they like it that way. Here, there are no questions about friendships, team dynamics or, most importantly, Hope Solo. Here, Solo has faded into anonymity, unique only by virtue of her green jersey.
It is the Saturday after the Opening Ceremony, the Americans have just averted what surely would have been dissected as an Olympic collapse, and Solo leans against a fence, nose ring shining, and eyeballs the team bus as it fills. She has nothing salacious to say. Eleven months ago, on Chinese soil, Solo vented and a freshly scrubbed American institution shook.
The headstrong goalkeeper bristled about her benching during the World Cup, questioned her coach and took what was perceived to be a deep dig at a beloved teammate. She was banished from the team, isolated from her peers.
Her teammates roll their eyes now when the Solo scandal is broached. "That's history," they'll say. They need her. Ask Solo whether it's true, whether she has won their trust back, and she pauses, choosing her words carefully.
"Time helps with everything," she says. "I've gotten a lot closer with my teammates over the last couple of months.
"A lot can happen in a year. A lot can change mentally and in your heart."
When Lesle Gallimore recruited Solo, she thought the kid hated her. The University of Washington coach had called her out at a camp once, as she did most 14-year-olds, and made Solo cry.
It didn't take Gallimore long to realize Solo wasn't the typical teenager. She was a forward in high school and could dazzle at any position on the field. Goalkeeper is a grueling position, Gallimore says, one that requires unwavering focus during long blocks of solitude.
Solo never seemed to get distracted. Not when her dad, a homeless Vietnam veteran, stood in the corner of the field before every Huskies home game, watching her warm up. Not when the average teen might've been embarrassed to claim the rumpled man who occasionally was accompanied by a foul whiff. Her teammates, for the most part, didn't know that Jeffrey Solo was his daughter's best friend and that she'd go to the woods and visit him, feeding him macaroni and cheese.
"She has so much unconditional love for her family," Gallimore says. "It didn't matter to her.
"She's an extremely resilient person who has been through a lot in her life. She has sort of I wouldn't say it's a thick skin. But she's had a lot of things in her life that are way worse than what happened in China."
In 2007, a few months before the World Cup, Jeffrey Solo died of unknown causes. Hope dedicated the Cup to her father, and spread his ashes near the goal before every game.
"I played out of my mind," she says. "It was something immediate that I could give back to him. He was more excited about the World Cup than I was; he was so proud of me. He carried me through it."
Solo went more than 300 minutes without giving up a goal, and led the U.S. to the semifinals. During a team dinner just before the Americans were to play Brazil, coach Greg Ryan tapped Solo on the shoulder and told her they needed to talk.
Ryan had decided to sit Solo in favor of Briana Scurry, the goalkeeper who had led the Americans to gold medals in Atlanta and Athens. Scurry had past success against Brazil. The U.S. lost the game, 4-0.
Had Solo held her tongue, contained the emotions boiling inside of her, Gallimore is convinced the national focus would've been on Ryan's questionable coaching decision. It wouldn't have escalated into a YouTube favorite.
But Solo, still hurting from her father's death, couldn't hold it in.
"It was the wrong decision, and I think anybody that knows anything about the game knows that," Solo said then. "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."
And with that, Solo became an outcast. She was banned from team meals and the third-place game against Norway. She wasn't allowed to fly back with the Americans.
Solo issued a handful of apologies, and it didn't seem to be enough. With one short outburst, she violated an unwritten code in high-level women's athletics.
"Women have to get along," says sports psychologist Jack Stark. "There can be a lot more individualism on male teams; it's almost promoted sometimes.
"[Women] are supposed to be very aggressive and physical, then go in the locker room and put on makeup and be feminine. In elite women's athletics, you have to be diplomatic or you get the team coming down on top of you."
The MySpace page hasn't had a log-in since December 2007. At the top is a picture of Solo smiling and holding a soccer ball. Beside it is a quote:
"If you truly expect to realize your dreams, abandon the need for blanket approval. If conforming to everyone else's expectations is the number one goal, you have sacrificed your uniqueness and, therefor[e] your excellence."
In the days after the World Cup, Solo thought about quitting, running away from the clique that shunned her. She'd barely had time to mourn her father. She was isolated and depressed. Back home, Gallimore was shocked by the juice the controversy had created. She wasn't angry at Solo for speaking her mind. She was mad at Ryan for denying her star a chance at a World Cup title.
A month after China, U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati announced that Ryan's contract wouldn't be extended. Sundhage, a former Swedish footballer, eventually was hired to lead the Americans.
One of Sundhage's first tasks was to call in Solo, Scurry and backup goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart for separate meetings.
"To ignore it, I think that would be arrogant," Sundhage says.
"I listened to their stories, and I asked them two questions: Do you want to win? Yes. Do we need good goalkeepers? Yes."
Solo regained her starting job, surrendering just six goals in 1,170 minutes. The Americans will face Japan in the Olympic semifinals Monday, and their quiet rise in faraway venues in Shanghai and Qinhuangdao has turned into sort of a feel-good story. Just before the Olympics, the U.S. lost scoring whiz Abby Wambach to a broken leg.
In the opening game, the Americans did not look like the powerhouse that has never failed to medal in the Olympics. Solo gave up two goals in the first four minutes of a 2-0 loss to Norway.
As Solo looked up at the scoreboard in the final minutes, she said she felt sick to her stomach.
"The energy in the locker room was different," Solo says. "You could feel the nerves.
"There was a lot of pressure, I think, after everything that was said last year. I got that game under my belt and came up fine."
It is Sunday, 24 hours before the Americans play Japan for a shot at the championship game, and they are finally in Beijing. They assemble for a news conference with Sundhage and four selected players. Solo is not among them.
The conversation bounces from Wambach's injury to the Norway game to how the team has been building chemistry with every Olympic match. And that, maybe, is a sign that the Solo scandal has finally subsided. Or are they just better at keeping their emotions in check?
"We couldn't move forward and be where we are today without that trust being there," co-captain Kate Markgraf says. "She's one of the 19 we have. You know what? We have all have to be strong together. And that trust is totally regained."
Somewhere away from the prying cameras, Solo wants to believe that. She doesn't need 18 deep friendships; she just wants respect.
Elizabeth Merrill writes for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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