Last week, I sent Hope Solo a few questions after the US Women’s National Team’s first-place Group stage finish. After receiving the reply, what I observed from her answers was a headstrong, warrior-like persona with the confidence of the world-class keeper that she is.
But after Thursday's devastating 4-0 loss to Brazil, a vastly different Solo appeared in a post-match interview. Less than a week after I glanced upon her responses, I saw a broken player freshly stripped of that trademark confidence. Instead of the ever-present poised and determined look, her eyelids became dams for tears waiting to burst. As her voice trembled with insecurity, the world got a brand new look of Hope Solo: that of a shattered psyche that no horrendous, multi-goal game could ever deliver.
Of course, the events that led up to this debacle are still fresh. In a controversial move, US manager Greg Ryan decided, less than 48 hours prior to the World Cup semi-final match against a formidable Brazilian side, that his keeper of choice would not be Solo. Rather than sticking with the proverbial hot hand – Solo was riding a 298 minute shutout streak - he elected to go with veteran keeper Briana Scurry, whose career statistics against Brazil (12-0-0, 0.41 GAA) seemingly favored the US’s chances of beating them and advancing to the finals. After the news broke, Solo addressed the media, half-heartedly projecting the image a level-headed teammate, stating that it was a coach's decisions, while all the while the world could see that the keeper was troubled.
Fast-forward 24 hours: the US was shelled by an enormously talented Brazil, and the controversy sparked on the eve of the match just erupted turned into a full-fledged forest fire. In his post-game press conference, Ryan stuck by his decision; Solo was less than diplomatic.
During an emotional post-match interview - one given despite protocol that bars a non-performer from doing so - Solo publicly blasted her coach, saying that she should have started, and not Scurry. “It was the wrong decision, and I think anybody that knows anything about the game knows that.”
Congratulations, Coach Ryan. You've single-handedly rattled the confidence of your club's best keeper, nevermind one of the world’s best.
Now the question that hovers above the radioactive fallout of the Brazil fiasco is whether Solo will return to her goalkeeping duties anytime soon. Obviously, it would appear that a quick answer would come in the form of Sunday's third-place match against Norway. No announcements have been made as of yet; it’s quite possible that Ryan will stick with Scurry or perhaps even insert third-string keeper Nicole Barnhart in order to gage the 25-year-old’s poise in a World Cup atmosphere. Then again, it’s not entirely out of the question that if Ryan and Solo quickly resolve their differences, the Washington state native could return to action.
On a larger scale, with another important tournament coming up in less than a year - the 2008 Summer Olympics - the next few weeks may give a clearer picture of who will be back in net when the women return to China in search of a different kind of gold. Will Solo – whose confidence has been shaken to its core – ever return the to become the same stonewall form that she once was? Whether it’s Solo, Scurry, or up-and-comer Barnhart remains to be seen. But if the last 48 hours are any indication, it could be anyone.
The fact that the keeper’s position –one that was seemingly already determined and set in stone - is now mired in uncertainty may transform "The Greatest Team You’ve Never Heard Of" into "One Of The Greatest Teams You’ve Never Heard Of."