U.S. Soccer's suspension of Hope Solo feels hollow, opportunistic
Over what is now considerably more than a decade of international soccer, opponent after opponent has struggled to come up with a way to solve the riddle of Hope Solo in goal.
They still fare better in that regard than U.S. Soccer ever has.
On Wednesday, U.S. Soccer suspended Solo for six months. If this ultimately marks the end of Solo's time with the U.S. women's national team, the same team that variously developed, depended on, enabled and scolded Solo became the latest entity to be stymied by her.
The decision might well be the best thing for the national team. It might be the right time to begin to move on. But in portraying itself as doing the right thing, U.S. Soccer looks neither proactive nor pragmatic but like shallow opportunists.
Solo might choose a different word.
There were so many years and so many opportunities to make a stand with regard to her ability to, as U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati put it in a statement "conduct herself in a manner befitting a U.S. national team member." Instead they busted her for the equivalent of jaywalking.
Solo -- whose national team contract was reportedly terminated -- didn't make up a story about getting robbed at gunpoint in the Rio night. She wasn't caught using performance-enhancing drugs. Nor did she underscore millennia-old religious tensions by refusing to shake an opponent's hand.
She used the wrong word to make a point that wasn't correct to begin with.
Asked for her thoughts minutes after an Olympic quarterfinal penalty shootout against a Swedish team that executed a perfectly permissible game plan to perfection, she first praised her teammates for living up to all those traits to which Gulati was presumably referring in his statement. Then she described the opponent as "a bunch of cowards" for its strategy.
Imagine if she had only said what she offered later in the same mixed zone in Brasilia.
"You've got to take your hat off to them because they beat us," Solo said at the time. "So they're going on, like I said, and we're going home. They don't have as quality of players as the American team does or as Brazil does, so they have to play a way that's going to give them hope to beat a team like Brazil or the USA. And I think that's part of the tactical side of things. And Pia [Sundhage] is somewhat of a tactician, so she dropped her team into a 50 and tried to hit long balls. They could only really score on the opportunity for a long ball or on set pieces.
"So I guess you can say it's smart, but I don't think it's respectful to the game."
Same sentiment. Still not a model of sportsmanship. Still wrong in its conclusion. But are we having the same discussion about the potential end of her international career today? In so many words, Gulati suggested the comment was the straw that broke the camel's back.
More like the microfiber that brought down the Brooklyn Bridge.
With no more major tournaments in sight for three years, word choice spurred U.S. Soccer into action. With a World Cup and Olympic looming, neither her husband's DUI arrest while driving a U.S. Soccer team vehicle nor a domestic violence arrest merited more than a slap on the wrist (Solo was suspended for 30 days in January 2015 after Jerramy Stevens' arrest) or wait-and-see silence, respectively.
U.S. Soccer for years had two defensible paths with Solo. It had the opportunity to follow the path Gulati very belatedly traveled down in his statement, to hold members of the national team to a higher standard commensurate with the way they are marketed to youth.
It also had the opportunity to follow a path of pragmatism, to play the best goalkeeper regardless.
To a lot of people, pragmatism is entirely tolerable if presented sincerely. A lot of people are fine acknowledging that Solo is a complicated person, both flawed and admirable, with whom the United States stands a considerably better chance of winning important soccer games.
U.S. Soccer did it insincerely. It chose pragmatism when results mattered, then changed its tune when it was convenient to do so.
That is indefensible opportunism.
The suspension itself might be one more bit of theater, the six months it spans the least important six months in the four-year cycle of international competition, especially for a veteran of Solo's status. The termination of the contract could be more of an indication that this is also the first step toward turning the page (Solo will reportedly appeal both facets of the sanction). To move now might be U.S. Soccer's escape hatch.
Yet there is a very good chance that Solo at 38 years old in 2019 will still be as good as any goalkeeper the United States has at its disposal. That's both a testament to her ability -- she really is a generation or two ahead of her time athletically -- and a less rosy assessment of the options on the horizon. The United States isn't going to cede much of an advantage to any other team in the world at the moment if it starts Alyssa Naeher or Ashlyn Harris. Both of the other keepers on the Olympic roster (Harris was an alternate) are excellent by any comparison to their peers. But neither came close to beating out Solo. It isn't an insult to say they aren't as good as Solo -- no one is.
Fans of college soccer will also know that it isn't awash in mesmerizing goalkeeping, either (and that a curious number of those standouts there seem to be Canadian). Perhaps current Stanford goalkeeper Jane Campbell is the heir apparent. Maybe it's Adrianna Franch, currently competing for starts with the NWSL's Portland Thorns FC but a talented 25-year-old. All there are right now are maybes.
So forgive a cynic for thinking there is still a very real chance that Solo will be back in goal when the United States goes about qualifying for and likely participating in the next World Cup.
After all, history unerringly suggests the national team's relationship with Solo will always come down to how much -- and how soon -- it feels like it needs her.