Biggest stars in women's soccer to collide in U.S.-Brazil quarterfinal
DRESDEN, Germany -- The Brazilian journalists came running toward Hope Solo here on Saturday morning. As soon as the U.S. goalkeeper had finished an interview with me in the lobby of the team hotel, a top Brazilian TV network asked Solo if she would "send a kiss" on video to a male sports anchor back home who has become infatuated with her during the Women's World Cup.
"*Manda um beijo*," Solo said with a smile, not once, not twice, but three times as the producer pressed for the perfect take.
Up stepped another Brazilian journo: "The Brazilian fans say you are the most beautiful of the World Cup. What do you say?"
"I'm flattered," Solo said. "But I can't wait to stand out with my play on the field."
As Solo headed out for training, she turned toward me and flashed a knowing, here-we-go-again look. "*Awk ... ward!*"
We had just been talking about what she calls "the Beckham theory" -- the notion that all forms of attention can help grow the following of soccer, whether it's in the U.S. or around the world. I told Solo that I had done a Twitter search on her name during one U.S. game just to see how the U.S. team was being received by the public. It seemed like half the male population on Twitter was issuing her marriage proposals.
"For me, I want to back up everything with my play, first and foremost," Solo said. "And then all the other attention, I mean, it's good to bring attention to the sport. I think ESPN has done an amazing job covering the tournament, and we've gained a lot more fans. Obviously, we have a league that's struggling in America, and if you bring more attention overall it will help."
But here's the thing you have to know about Solo: She may be the most ruthless competitor at this World Cup, and the last thing she'll be doing in Sunday's World Cup quarterfinal against Brazil is "sending a kiss" to the competition. In fact, the world's best goalkeeper has a blessedly old-school icy relationship with Brazil's top goal-scoring threat, Marta, the five-time World Player of the Year.
Don't get me wrong, it's nice that most of the U.S. and Brazilian players get along well off the field, and several of them exchanged pleasantries in the hotel lobby here on Friday. But competitive tension isn't a bad thing, either, and Solo says if she saw Marta in the lobby, "I'd just walk away. It's funny. We don't interact, and I know her. We've played on all-star teams together, and she's friends with a lot of my teammates. I don't know what it is, but we tend to keep our distance and keep that mystique between the greatest striker in the world and the goalkeeper."
Mystique-wise, theirs is a largely one-sided relationship these days. It was Solo who came up huge in the 2008 Olympic gold-medal game, stoning Marta from point-blank range late in the game before the U.S. won 1-0 in extra time on a Carli Lloyd strike. Nor was Solo in goal when Marta had her finest hour in the World Cup '07 semifinals against the U.S., a 4-0 Brazil victory. If the U.S. is going to win on Sunday, the difference-maker may well be Solo, who has never allowed a goal against the Brazilians in four games.
Still, Solo argues that the U.S.'s biggest changes since the '08 Olympic final have come on the attacking end.
"Now three years later we're an entirely different team," she said. "After that final, Pia [Sundhage, the U.S. coach] said to us: 'We won because we are the best defensive team in the world. But going forward we're not going to win with just defense. We have to be creative on the attack.' So we spent three years kind of ignoring our defense and focusing on our variety in the attack. And you can tell there are changes."
But the U.S. lost its patience, Solo says, in a 2-1 defeat to Sweden on Wednesday after going down by two goals in the first half.
"We kind of resorted back to: We're behind, so we're going to lump the ball forward and get it to Abby [Wambach] and our speed up top with Alex [Morgan], and that didn't work for us," Solo said. "I think it was good for us to see if we do get behind, we can't resort to our old tactics. We have to stay true to our game."
With Brazil's speed and skill up front, it's likely that Solo will have to make some big stops in the quarterfinal, not unlike the one she had in blocking the shot that Sweden's Lotta Schelin had on a breakaway early in Wednesday's game. In some ways, it's impressive that Solo is even on the field after returning early from major reconstructive shoulder surgery just in time for the World Cup. She now has 11 anchors holding her right shoulder together.
Solo had three painkiller shots just before the World Cup but thinks "making a big deal about it now is kind of absurd.
"Because shot or no shot, I'm going to get through the pain and I'm going to play. It's the World Cup. This is what you go through the pain for. With that said, it's incredibly painful. But I can manage it and get through it. I do get shots before the game. I'm kind of riding an intensity high and feeling less pain on gameday and more afterward during training sessions."
But what would you expect, she asks, since she returned nine months after a surgery that normally requires a 12-month recovery?
Whenever the U.S. meets Brazil in a major tournament, it seems as though Solo is the center of attention. At the 2007 World Cup it was due to her public comments after being benched for the Brazil game, and at the '08 Olympics it was for her redemptive star turn against Brazil in the gold-medal game. Now Solo is ready for what may be another U.S.-Brazil classic on Sunday (ESPN, 11:30 a.m. ET).
"All the experiences that I've had in this year's tournament have been night-and-day different from 2007," said Solo, whose father, Jeffrey, died just before the '07 event. "I wasn't able to allow myself to appreciate every moment in '07. I think it was because inside I was in a dark place and I was hurt over losing my father. All I could think about was winning the tournament for my dad. In this tournament I got really nervous for the first game, and I was like, wow, this is a cool feeling. I feel like it's a true World Cup experience for me for the first time, and it's been awesome."
Now Brazil awaits -- and you wonder if the game might come down to another one-on-one showdown between Marta and Solo, forward and goalkeeper, the two biggest personalities in women's soccer. They may not talk to each other in hotel lobbies, but they'll say plenty on the field here tomorrow.
• U.S. right midfielder Heather O'Reilly says she's "100 percent" after missing the Sweden loss with a groin strain. O'Reilly could be especially important against Brazil as the only true winger on the U.S. team, not least because Brazil's unusual throwback back line (two man-markers and a sweeper) should leave open spaces on the flank for O'Reilly to penetrate and send crosses from the right.
• Tactics mavens will have some fun analyzing this game. Brazil coach Kleiton Lima has been using a 3-4-3 formation in which the back line has two man-markers (Erika and Aline) and a sweeper (Daiane), which no doubt brings a smile to the face of German legend Franz Beckenbauer. Opting for a sweeper in soccer is kind of like using the single wing in American football, but it brings a distinct twist to Sunday's game, as Sundhage noted when I asked her about it on Friday.
"I think it's interesting," she said. "It's a brave move. You could talk to many coaches who'd say that's old-school with a sweeper sitting on top of the D. Everybody else is doing something different, but they stick with a plan. It takes a lot of courage to do that. That's why it's so important for us to do our homework and encourage the players to play a little bit different. Because it will be hard to be offside. What will that do to our attacking game? I will throw a hundred questions to the players to make them aware of the difference between playing Sweden and playing Brazil with a sweeper. We'll make them aware of the difference."
• Something to keep in mind after the U.S.'s loss to Sweden on Wednesday: the U.S. women have gone 210 games and 10 years since the last time they lost two in a row. That happened at the Algarve Cup in March 2001 when the U.S. fell to Sweden and Norway.