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Always controversial, Solo saves the day as U.S. wins soccer gold

LONDON -- Hope Solo says that she never knows when the game will come to her. She just knows that at some point in every big tournament it will.

The game found her on Thursday night at Wembley Stadium in the gold medal game. The stadium was packed to the rafters with a record crowd of 80,203. The lightning-quick and technically gifted Japan teams were pushing forward and, though the U.S. team led the entire game, their victory never felt secure.

And sure enough, in the 83rd minute, the game was Solo's to win or lose.

"I was hoping my time would come," Solo said. "Usually in my experience there is one game where you have to make an impact. It hadn't come in five games."

Solo has made an impact throughout this tournament, though not always on the field. She created an uproar after the team's second game by lashing out at soccer icon Brandi Chastain on Twitter, taking offense at what she perceived as Chastain's negative comments on the NBC broadcast. While her actions launched a fierce debate online and in the Main Press Center at Olympic Park, the furor didn't seem to penetrate the U.S. women's bubble. Sequestered in cities outside London, their chemistry seemed strong -- Solo's teammates even made sure she was involved in an orchestrated goal celebration at Old Trafford in Manchester.

Solo is always a topic of conversation. She's mercurial and controversial, and breaks the mold for female athletes. (Full disclosure: Solo has a book -- "Solo: A Memoir of Hope" -- coming out next week, which I wrote with her). Even her absence at a team press conference on Wednesday was a hot topic of speculation -- was the team not allowing her to speak freely?

On the field, Solo had been solid if not spectacular. Though the U.S. gave up two quick goals in their first game against France, she didn't see much action thereafter. Against Canada she gave up three goals, two on flicked headers and one on a terrible defensive breakdown. There weren't a lot of saves to be made, though she did make one in the 89th minute to prevent a loss.

"It was a strange tournament for a goalkeeper," she said.

But Japan kept her busy on Thursday. She got some help from her crossbar in the first half.

In the 83rd minute, with the U.S. clinging to a 2-1 lead, the game came to Solo.

Captain Christie Rampone made a rare mistake, turning the ball over in the box. Japan's Mana Iwabuchi stripped her and took a shot from 15 yards out an angle. Solo dived to her left and punched the ball away.

"I knew I had to find a way to make the save," said Solo who credited Becky Sauerbraun for cutting off Iwabuchi's ability to pass the ball. "I was pretty confident in my angle."

Solo is confident and her teammates are confident in her.

"The thing about great athletes is they show up when they're needed," Abby Wambach said. "Superstars don't go unnoticed for very long."

Four years ago in Beijing, Solo was spectacular, stopping Brazil's Marta in overtime. That victory was different: she had been ostracized from her team a year earlier in the 2007 World Cup after criticizing then-coach Greg Ryan. Pia Sundhage took over, let the team know that Solo would be their goalkeeper, and managed to create a fragile chemistry that held through the Olympics.

Four years later, this is a very different team. A much better team in terms of soccer talent, but also a stronger one in terms of chemistry. Solo is recognized as an indispensible part of the team (which is why the media speculation that she might be benched for voicing her opinions on Twitter seemed a little over the top). She's universally recognized as the best goalkeeper in the world.

And when the game comes to her she's ready.

"I think I tend to play well under pressure," she said. " A lot of great players do."

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