Over the years, for better and for worse, Hope Solo has done more than any other athlete to make us reconsider the nature of women’s professional team sports. As painful as Solo’s World Cup 2007 outburst and team banishment may have been, her successful return (with Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012) changed the U.S. women’s team’s long-held belief that female athletes needed a personal bond with their teammates off the field to succeed.
The lesson was a healthy one: Even though many of Solo’s teammates didn’t like her personally, she was the top U.S. goalkeeper, perhaps the finest in the world, and she gave the U.S. the best chance to raise trophies. When Pia Sundhage came in as the U.S. coach ahead of the 2008 Olympics, she recalled saying to the team: “Do you want to win?”
“Then we need goalkeepers.”
At the time, it was a dose of reality that the U.S. team needed—a carry-over from what we’ve seen in men’s pro sports to the women’s side. But these days Solo is at the center of the same question, and this time the lesson may not be as healthy, even if we’ve grown accustomed to it in men’s sports. To wit: If Solo wasn’t still the best U.S. goalkeeper by a mile—and she is—would she even be with the national team anymore for this year’s World Cup after a series of damaging alcohol-related incidents?
A quick catch-up: Solo arrived late to the USA's recent training camp in Los Angeles after a judge dismissed fourth-degree charges against her in a domestic disturbance with a family member. U.S. Soccer had taken plenty of heat from critics for not suspending Solo, but the federation’s decision was vindicated by the dismissal: The facts in the case were in dispute, and the charges were eventually dismissed.
Within days of that victory, however, Solo’s response to U.S. Soccer was to take a USSF van out with her husband, former NFL player Jerramy Stevens, stay out late drinking in L.A. and have him drive the van back to the U.S. team hotel (where police stopped them and hit him with a DUI charge). Solo then failed to inform team officials about the incident until they saw it in a TMZ report.
Last week U.S. Soccer suspended Solo for 30 days, causing her to miss upcoming friendlies at France and England, adding that she could apply for reinstatement at the end of that period.
Solo, for her part, didn’t fight the decision. “I accept and respect the federation’s decision, and more importantly, I apologize for disappointing my teammates, coaches and the federation who have always supported me,” she said in a statement. “I think it’s best for me to take a break, decompress from the stress of the last several months and come back mentally and physically ready to positively contribute to the team.”
In a Monday teleconference, I asked U.S. Soccer officials why they decided to suspend Solo for a month, and whether (given the common theme of alcohol in Solo’s incidents) any sort of alcohol treatment program was being required of her by the USSF during the 30-day period.
Said U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati: “Since we’ve got health-related issues here, we need to be a little bit careful about how we get into various parts of this, and you’ve touched on part of it. So that decision came after a series of discussions between [U.S. Soccer CEO] Dan Flynn, Jill [Ellis, the U.S. women’s coach] and I. And 30 days seemed to be the appropriate suspension under our rules and given the circumstances.”
“So there are a number of things that Hope is being asked to do in that 30 days,” Gulati continued. “We’re not going to get into the specifics of that, and then we’ll evaluate where things stand at the end of that period and make the decision going forward.”
Ellis went on from there. “The situation warranted a consequence, and we thought it was reasonable,” she said. “Obviously from the perspective of two very big games, this is important for us to be able to focus the players that we have on these games and allow Hope some time to sort of reflect on some things. I think as far as the specifics, we’re not going to get into those. But Hope and I had some very good conversations, and I’m optimistic about moving forward … There are things that we think are important for her to continue with our program. I think they’re certainly achievable.”
Gulati said it was possible that Solo could still miss the World Cup, but he added that everyone’s goal is that “she’s making progress and joins the team.” In other words, it’s likely that Solo will be back with the U.S. team for the Algarve Cup tournament in March, an important test ahead of the World Cup starting June 6.
This much is also true: When she’s on the field, Solo is by far the U.S.’s best goalkeeper.
Her back-ups—Nicole Barnhart, Ashlyn Harris and Alyssa Naeher—have very little experience on the highest international level.
Barnhart is 33, Harris is coming off surgery for a broken finger last month, and Naeher just got her first cap in December. France and England will be eye-openers for whomever starts in those games.
It’s fair to wonder whether Solo would have any shot of coming back to the team if she was a borderline choice when it came to on-the-field performance. But once again, under different circumstances than in 2008, it comes back to this:
“Do you want to win?”
“Then we need goalkeepers.”
Plain and simple: If the U.S. is going to win its first World Cup since 1999, it needs Solo in goal. And if that makes you a little (or a lot) uncomfortable, join the club.