No matter the viewpoint, the U.S. women's national team needs its No. 1 goalkeeper back.
Hope Solo has been reinstated by U.S. Soccer after a 30-day suspension, as she returns to Jill Ellis' roster for the annual trip to the Algarve Cup in March. Ashlyn Harris deputized well in recent friendlies against France and England, but Solo still holds the unquestioned top rank in the goalkeeping hierarchy.
The U.S. wouldn’t have beaten France even with Solo in goal, and Harris prevented the loss from being even heavier than 2-0 with a couple superb saves.
In the first half in particular, she tipped two consecutive overhead shots, and she made a similar save in the 1-0 win over England (though she was spared from conceding on the rebound only by an incorrect offside call).
However, modern goalkeeping requires more than stopping shots.
Harris showed why she was one of the highest-rated goalkeepers at the 2002 and 2004 under-19 World Cups, conceding just twice in the 2002 championship run and making the Team of the Tournament in 2004. Still, unlike the U.S. men’s player pool with Tim Howard and Brad Guzan, this isn’t a “1A” vs. “1B” type of discussion.
Solo’s 159 caps offer experience that the U.S. will need this summer at the World Cup. She has been the only American goalkeeper to play in a major tournament since manager Greg Ryan’s fateful decision to replace her with Briana Scurry before the 4-0 loss to Brazil in the 2007 semifinals.
Harris now has six caps to her name, and backup for the past two World Cups and Olympics Nicole Barnhart has 54, but none of those have come on the world’s biggest stage.
Goalkeeping is largely an experience-based position, and a U.S. team still finding its feet under Ellis will need leadership to prop up the back line at Canada 2015.
So while Harris played well in Europe this month, Solo is still the best choice. Her intangible qualities are still superior to any other goalkeeper in the player pool, including her in-game mental toughness and U.S. teammates’ trust in her abilities.
Solo’s shakiest area technically remains her distribution, which is something she has worked heavily to improve over the past two years with the Seattle Reign. Playing in Laura Harvey’s system that requires all players to be comfortable with the ball at their feet has helped, although she still launches clearances long more often than not.
That won’t be much of a worry with the U.S.’s current set-up, which showed a propensity for long balls out of the back from all positions in the previous two matches. Especially against France, the defense came under pressure often, a preview of what to expect against top teams at the World Cup. The U.S. missed Solo’s authoritative ability to control her penalty area, snatching crosses and organizing players in front of her.
When they step onto the field in Canada, few will care what she has done recently off the field, because she remains the best choice at her position. Solo will start for the U.S. at the World Cup, as long as on-field considerations are the only circumstances affecting selection.