MONTCLAIR, N.J. — Hope Solo thought the memory and misery of the 2007 World Cup would be left far behind as she got closer to this year’s championships.
Three weeks before the tournament kicks off, she recognizes the folly of that belief.
“2007 comes up now more than it ever has. I guess with the first World Cup since that one being here … “
Her voice trails off and Solo’s eyes drop. But only for a second or two.
“I thought after we won the gold in ’08 in Beijing, and then all the team unity we have built with (coach) Pia Sundhage from the time she arrived after ’07, that we would be way beyond ’07,” said Solo, a Richland native who played goalie for the University of Washington. “But I can see how it can be a story and people bring it up. I expect it and I am fine with it. We are not trying to sweep ’07 under the rug. You learn from it; you have to learn from it. There’s nothing to hide. Things like that happen.
“I have no regrets. None. I don’t live with regrets. You learn and you move on. I have.”
What Solo has moved on from is one of the ugliest incidents in what has been a generally positive and productive existence for the U.S. women’s national team.
Having beaten out Briana Scurry, the keeper for the United States when it so memorably won the 1999 World Cup – her penalty kick save in the shootout led to Brandi Chastain’s winning shot – Solo backstopped the Americans to the 2007 semifinals in China. With the slick and quick Brazilians up next, coach Greg Ryan opted to sit Solo for Scurry.
The U.S. team was routed 4-0.
After the loss, Solo said: “It was the wrong decision, and I think anybody that knows anything about the game knows that. There’s no doubt in my mind I would have made those saves. … You have to live in the present. And you can’t live by big names. You can’t live in the past.”
Ryan dismissed Solo from the World Cup team. She wasn’t allowed on the bench for the third-place game, did not participate in the medal ceremony and flew home from China on her own.
Soon after, Ryan was replaced by Sundhage.
Solo already had gone through a difficult personal stretch. Her father, Jeffrey, had died just weeks before the tournament began. She’d dedicated the World Cup to him, then posted three shutouts before being benched.
With the 2008 Olympics close on the horizon, Solo not only needed to impress a new coaching staff, she had to recapture the faith of her teammates, some of whom openly criticized how she handled being replaced by Scurry.
Convincing Sundhage of her skills was the easiest part for Solo.
“Hope has moved on and (2007) is not something we talk about any longer,” Sundhage said. “She showed in Beijing what kind of a goalkeeper she is.”
Solo started 27 games in 2008, by far the most of any year since joining the national squad in 2000. She was 23-1 with 13 shutouts in ’08, and her spectacular saves against Brazil in the overtime victory in the gold medal game remain career highlights.
Mending relationships with the other players came quickly enough, too.
Solo issued an apology through U.S. Soccer just before an exhibition tour against Mexico later in 2007. She built on that.
None of her current teammates say the 2007 World Cup is on their minds, either.
“The thing with Hope and I is we are pretty honest people,” said Abby Wambach, whose 118 career goals tops the U.S. team. “In any difficult time for all of us, and mostly for her, it has taught the most valuable lesson any pro athlete can learn: believing in ourselves that we are the best and can be the best again. It’s that inner confidence, and for a goalkeeper, it’s a key quality to have, and Hope always has had it.
“I believe we have grown up together into weathered veterans. She’s a winner, does whatever it takes to win games. I like to think I am, too.”
Wambach, headed to her third World Cup, added: “The beautiful thing is her intensity and leadership in goal makes it a calming force for the rest of us. We know she will make the big save, keep us organized. She has the confidence you always want to see.”
That confidence has been tested physically in the last two years. Solo injured her right shoulder and kept playing on it. She admits now it was the absolute wrong decision.
“I was playing on it and I shouldn’t have been,” Solo said. “The hardest decision really was going to have the surgery. But it got to the point where the World Cup was coming up and even if I was able to fight through the pain, it wasn’t getting better.”
Solo consulted the national team’s medical staff and noted orthopedist Dr. James Andrews, and once she opted for the surgery, a huge mental weight was lifted.
“Instantly, I turned it into a fight to get back,” she said. “It was, ‘Look, you are going to be out the next nine months, so do the rehab the best you can, make the best recovery you can.’”
Then the United States lost to Mexico in World Cup qualifying and had to go through a two-game series with Italy to get into the tournament. It was a stunning setback for the top-ranked Americans, and it troubled Solo that she wasn’t around to help.
“So mentally, the rehab was good,” she said. “I was prepared to sit out the World Cup qualifying, didn’t expect it to be a big deal or that it would be that hard. Then we had our mishap against Mexico and it made me a little nervous.”
But the U.S. women swept Italy, and Solo returned to the lineup in April against England. Sundhage quickly recognized Solo was not yet at full strength.
Solo saw it, too.
“Getting back on the field was the hardest time physically,” she said. “You would celebrate small victories, like doing push-ups or pull-ups. But then I would think, ‘That’s not good enough for Pia.’
“When I was back with the team, I was expecting to get the 90 (minutes) and to win my spot back. The clock was ticking and I was expecting the full game against England. But I wasn’t ready, only got half a game, and that was eye-opening.
“I was favoring the shoulder, doing some things to either protect it or things not natural for me. You can’t play that way. I knew I need a little bit more time.”
“I’m 100 times better,” she said
She doesn’t mean simply since early April.
“When I came into the (national) camp in 1999, I made it there all on athletic ability,” Solo recalled. “It was my first camp and, really, I was just an athlete, not an overall player.
“Now … night and day. My technical skills are much better, I’ve kept my fitness when I am not injured and definitely have my speed and quickness. I mentally understand the game. I organize the defense much better. I really take pride in all of that.”
Next up, World Cup redemption?
“I am incredibly looking forward to it and it’s not all about what happened in 2007,” she said. “Hey, it’s been way too long, 12 years, since we brought home that trophy. Twelve years is a long time.”