Keeping Score

From Pariah to the Pinnacle: U.S. Women’s Soccer Goalie Hope Solo

Hope Solo, goalkeeper for the U.S. women's soccer team, is emerging as a charismatic star. But she wasn't always a great teammate. What her story says about second chances

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Johannes Eisele / AFP / Getty Images

U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo grabs the ball and falls on Brazilian defender Rosana during the quarterfinal match of the Women's World Cup in Dresden, Germany, on July 10, 2011

There are your standard long flights, like trans-Pacific hauls from China to Seattle. Then there are horrifically long flights, like the trans-Pacific haul from China to Seattle that Hope Solo took in September 2007.

Solo is the star goalkeeper for the U.S. women’s soccer team, which will face Japan in the World Cup final in Frankfurt on Sunday in the finale of its inspiring tournament run. But back in 2007, she wasn’t flying so high. In fact, Solo got booted from the tournament, held that year in China.

(See pictures of Women’s World Cup players in action.)

As if she were a surly, misbehaving teen at summer camp, the team sent Solo home for acting up. Solo, then 26, had publicly protested her coach’s decision to bench her for the team’s semifinal game against Brazil. She had to fly home — solo, naturally — with a look of disgust on her face. “If you saw her,” says an eyewitness who shared a leg of that flight with Solo and who now, like the rest of the country, is transfixed by her talents, “you’d say, ‘That’s an unhappy person.’ “

Despite the bad press Solo got for her untimely exit, she did have a right to be peeved. During the 2007 World Cup, Solo started all four games leading into the semifinal against Brazil. She posted three straight shutouts. But U.S. coach Greg Ryan decided to play Briana Scurry, the starting goalkeeper for the U.S. teams that won the 1996 Olympic gold medal, the 1999 World Cup and the 2004 Olympic gold medal. Scurry, Ryan reasoned, was more experienced in big moments and had a history of success against Brazil.

Brazil beat the U.S., 4-0, that day, giving the U.S. its worst loss in World Cup history.

“It was the wrong decision, and I think anybody that knows anything about the game knows that,” Solo said after the game. “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 not 2004. And 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.”

(See pictures of the 2010 Men’s World Cup.)

Still, regardless of whether she was right, Solo had violated a tenet of team sports: don’t criticize a teammate in public. Solo insisted at the time that she wasn’t trying to disparage Scurry. But of course, that’s exactly what she did. Ryan sent her home and made her miss the third-place game, which ended with a 4-1 U.S. victory over Norway.

Solo had hit a low point. On top of the World Cup disaster, she was still dealing with the recent deaths of a close friend and of her father, a sometimes-homeless Vietnam vet who was divorced from her mother but whom she was still close to.

“Those were the hardest times in my life,” she told Men’s Journal before the 2008 Olympics. “My world was completely shaken. I was dealing with the death of my friend as well as that of my father. I came home and I locked myself in my house. I didn’t want to see anybody. I didn’t take phone calls. I lost weight. I was a wreck. I was a mess.”

(See “Why America’s Never-Say-Die Attitude Has Electrified the World Cup.”)

Eventually, Solo’s teammates accepted her back, if not with completely open arms. “Things will never entirely be the same,” Solo told Men’s Journal about her relationship with Team U.S.A. “And that’s life.” Solo bounced back from the World Cup nightmare at the Beijing Olympics, where she shut out Brazil, 1-0, in the gold-medal game (by then, Pia Sundhage, the current coach, had replaced Ryan). But Solo didn’t truly arrive until now. During the Olympics, soccer was overshadowed by swimming, gymnastics, track, basketball and dozens of other events that captured our quadrennial attention. Now, during these slow summer days of July, women’s soccer is the main game in town.

Solo is fiery and athletic: against Brazil, she batted away a penalty kick that keyed the U.S. win. Her good looks and catchy name — Hope Solo! — only add to her appeal. Solo has increased her Twitter audience tenfold in the past week, reaching 100,000 followers. NBA superstar Kevin Durant has promised to name his first daughter after her. Men (and women) around the globe are proposing marriage to Solo, happily embarrassing themselves via stadium banners or online propositions. Wrote one woman on Twitter: “Will Wisconsin please allow gay marriage? Because I want to marry Hope Solo.”

Solo’s story is a valuable lesson. We all have unpleasant colleagues to whom we would happily show the door. But in sports, and in life, these people can sometimes change their attitudes for the better. And when they do so, they can surprise, and thus inspire, the team — as well as the fans.

(See pictures of the 2007 Women’s World Cup.)

Going into the 2009 season, for example, some New York Yankees whispered that Alex Rodriguez was a bit too self-involved. He let down his notorious guard that year and did a better job of becoming “one of the guys.” Rodriguez won the first World Series title of his career. After Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suffered a tumultuous 2010 off-season, which revealed his ugly behavior around women and poor locker-room decorum, he swore to be a solid citizen. By all accounts, he kept his promises. Roethlisberger’s teammates accepted the “new Ben,” and the Steelers reached the Super Bowl.

This year’s Steelers should keep these stories in mind when defensive linebacker James Harrison, who recently criticized Roethlisberger for forcing passes and running back Rashard Mendenhall for fumbling, returns to the locker room this summer (assuming the NFL lockout comes to a merciful end). NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, whom Harrison called, among other things, a “devil” and a “punk” in that story, might be less forgiving.

The U.S. women’s soccer team, the surprise hit of the summer, is lucky it gave Solo that extra chance. After Sunday’s game, Solo will be taking another long flight home. But this time, she may not want it to end.

See pictures of World Cup stadiums around the world.