Hope Solo keeps shining despite being constant lightning rod
BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil -- If locals hoped to get under Hope Solo's skin by heckling the goalkeeper during much of the United States' Olympic opener against New Zealand, they chose the wrong material.
The chants of "Zika" that by the end of the game rang out loudly each time Solo kicked the ball were by most reckonings payback for what some fans perceived as the player maligning their country in social media posts showcasing the veritable arsenal of mosquito repellant that she brought to Brazil. But Solo, who previously apologized for any offense given, shrugged off the jeers.
The fans got some entertainment. She got yet another clean sheet.
If they really wanted to irk her, they should have questioned her workload.
Few matters predictably elicit an icy response from Solo like a question, however well-intentioned, that she interprets as an implication that low save totals, or even scarce touches in some games, equals a light workload. She bristled at such a query after her 100th international shutout a month ago against South Africa, and after first diplomatically defusing the subject of the heckling Wednesday night, she again took umbrage at a familiar line of questioning.
"A lot of my shutouts have been very intense games, with a lot of shots on goal, so please don't take away from that," Solo said. "But I will say shots on goal, it's not the only stat that a goalkeeper should be judged by. There's crosses, there's the kicking game, there's organizing the defense, there's positioning.
"I've said it my entire career, that I hate stats. ... It really doesn't tell the whole story."
The story of that career will presumably reach its 200th chapter when the United States plays France on Saturday (4 p.m. ET), and Solo should become the first goalkeeper to reach 200 appearances. It is a game of unusual stakes so early in the tournament. The winner, if there is one, becomes the prohibitive favorite to win Group G and face a third-place team in a quarterfinal. The team that finishes second in the group will play a quarterfinal against the winner of Group F, which without writing off Canada, could well be world No. 2 Germany.
I think the sheer amount of shutouts she's gotten, it's a testament to her and how she can organize us. ... I respect the hell out of her.Becky Sauerbrunn on U.S. teammate Hope Solo
France is the rare opponent that cedes little if anything to the United States either physically or technically. It keeps putting itself on the brink of something special in major tournaments -- the semifinals in the 2011 World Cup and 2012 Olympics and a quarterfinal exit in the 2015 World Cup in which it arguably outplayed Germany but yielded in a penalty shootout.
The stumbling point has been an inability to turn laudable possession into corresponding goals.
And the best way to prolong that streak is to stop the chances before they happen.
"She organizes everything," co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn said of Solo's effect on the U.S. defense. "Any time I'm out of step, she'll let me know and I'll have to correct it, or I'm going to hear it again and again and again. She demands perfection, and she'll let us know when it's not perfect. I think the sheer amount of shutouts she's gotten, it's a testament to her and how she can organize us. It's just wonderful to play with someone behind there that demands that from the people in front of her. And I respect the hell out of her."
An outside back more often out of earshot, especially in front of the kind of large and noisy crowds that flocked to the World Cup a year ago, Meghan Klingenberg nonetheless echoed Sauerbrunn's sentiments on organizational skills.
She also noted the second part of the résumé.
"She makes big saves when we need her to," Klingenberg said. "When [stuff] hits the fan and we break down at the end, she makes big saves."
Go back and watch some of the goalkeeping gaffes in the opening round of the men's and women's competition here to appreciate the value of that.
The nature of the U.S. team's stay in Brazil could be in the hands of someone whose visit was once a question mark.
In February, Solo told Sports Illustrated that if the Olympics were at hand, she wouldn't go because of concerns about the Zika virus. In explaining the evolution of that thought process, she said this week that she and husband Jerramy Stevens consulted three infectious disease doctors to educate themselves on the risks involved in traveling to the country most associated with the virus (although it has now spread as far as the mainland United States, with a recent outbreak in Miami determined to have originated there).
"We got to the point where we asked enough questions -- we prepared ourselves as best as possible," Solo said. "And we got to a level of being as comfortable as we possibly can be. I'm here now. I am very happy and proud to be here. As I said, we haven't been to Rio yet; I have no idea what to expect in Rio. But it has been beautiful here. It's been beautiful."
When [stuff] hits the fan and we break down at the end, she makes big saves.U.S. defender Meghan Klingenberg on Hope Solo
She went on to suggest the U.S. media was culpable for scaremongering and being unduly harsh on the Brazilian people in the Olympic buildup. It is never without some merit to point out the modern media's penchant for hyperbole, so point taken. At the same time, a prominent athlete going public with the idea that she wouldn't, based on the evidence she had at the time, go to the Olympics is the kind of thing that is going to generate coverage and feed the hyperbole.
She can pass a couple of quarters our way, but she can't pass the whole buck.
That quite possibly the best keeper who ever played women's soccer reaches an unequaled milestone in this manner is perfectly in keeping with the whole story of her career. It could have come in a forgotten friendly. Instead it will come in a defining game of these Olympics, against an opponent that might well be one goal away from a floodgate of championships opening.
And it comes against the backdrop of headlines that whether overblown, as in the heckling here or her comments after being replaced in the 2007 World Cup, or legitimate, as in the domestic violence case that preceded last year's World Cup, find her -- or vice versa -- with more regularity than shots.
It isn't as simple as counting saves. There is always so much more to the story of a truly complex figure.
"I think there is a lot of negativity out there sometimes," Solo said, prophetically, before the opener. "So I feel like I'm always just trying to push forward and take another step towards a highlight in my career. I think that's just the way I handle things. I just keep looking for the next feather in my cap, so to speak. But more or less, I just want to win another tournament.
"I think going along with trying to win this Olympics, I will be reaching my 200th cap and who knows what else. The desire to win has allowed me to reach these other accomplishments."
This much is clear.
Saturday is the kind of game her team wouldn't want to play without Solo in goal.
Then again, there are a lot of those games.