MONTREAL, Quebec -- If the United States is to beat the team even some of its players call the best in the world, odds are we will need to hear from Hope Solo again.
It has been a while.
Instrumental in the opening win against Australia that set the United States on a path to first place in the group and a far less taxing path to Tuesday's semifinal against Germany, Solo has been largely shielded from the spotlight in the weeks since. On the field, while undoubtedly also a product of Solo's effort and assistance, a shutout streak now at 423 minutes has earned a new-look back line rave reviews. The past month has been less of a test of Solo's patience than qualifying, when she made just one save in four starts against overmatched CONCACAF opponents and cast a lonely figure in her half of the field, but she has not been particularly busy.
The game against Australia, in which she made two fantastic, early saves to keep the game scoreless, was also the most recent time Solo spoke to the media. To some degree, that is because it was the most recent time she played a visible role in an outcome. In the wake of an "Outside the Lines" report on the eve of the tournament that included new details related to her arrest a year ago on domestic violence charges, Solo's silence is also by design on the part of U.S. Soccer. Every other key player for the American team has made multiple appearances at the news conferences and roundtables that occupy the days between games in the tournament. Solo is the lone exception. She spoke after the opening win against Australia but was ushered away when questions strayed from the confines of the game. After the round-of-16 win against Colombia, a reporter attempted to get her to stop in the mixed zone all players pass through as they exit, but she politely declined, as is any player's prerogative.
It has instead been left to those around her to speak for and about Solo.
"I think she's the best goalkeeper in the world," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said after the quarterfinal, a result that made Solo the national team's all-time wins leader. "She's done a fantastic job with this team, with this program. I think she's just highly talented, highly motivated and has earned those games because on the field, she's tremendous. I've really noticed her, just being off the field, on the field, just a real good focus.
"I think our shutouts, part of that is attributed certainly to our back line and the players in front of them, but certainly to Hope as well."
The coach's former boss concurred, if less diplomatically. Before Sweden and the United States played each other in the group phase, Sweden coach Pia Sundhage, who reached the World Cup final with the United States four years ago, labeled Solo "a piece of work" for all that comes off the field, but she also called the keeper the best in the world at her job.
Both sides of Sundhage's assessment are and will remain part of Solo's story. Fans who came to cheer the national team in stadiums across Canada greeted Solo with no less enthusiasm than they did other stars. Their judgment is audibly evident. Critics who believe she should not represent the country in international competition express those opinions too.
But Solo will play Tuesday, as she has played throughout this tournament, and if she proves herself the best keeper on a field, with German counterpart Nadine Angerer at the other end, the Americans will be better positioned to beat the team ranked one spot ahead of them, at No. 1 in the world. When Angerer won FIFA Player of the Year in 2013, she became not only the first goalkeeper to claim the honor but also the first to finish among the three finalists since the award was first given in 2001. She is 36 years old now, three years older than Solo. Age is less an issue at her position than elsewhere on the field, but time is everyone's vulnerability.
"She was the best player in the world a couple of years ago and one of the best goalkeepers in the world," said American defender Ali Krieger, who played alongside Angerer in Germany's professional league. "I think a lot of people have respect for her, and she's consistent, she's confident, and she does her job really well. She is a leader of that team, and I think that they really look to her for making these MVP plays, and she consistently does that at the right times. ... She's a leader, and that's what leaders do."
Even when saves aren't required, Solo too is a presence in the lineup for the United States. Institutional memory matters when it comes to goalkeepers. If the players in front of her believe she will make the plays, that influences their confidence, regardless of whether she does anything at all.
"Hope is a great force to have on the field," left back Meghan Klingenberg said. "Just having her in goal, first of all, is a motivator, is a confidence-builder for your back line, for the team in front of her."
Solo will need to be more against Germany. The Americans have faced great forwards in games against Australia, Nigeria and Sweden. The back line, particularly Julie Johnston and Becky Sauerbrunn in the middle but also outside backs Klingenberg and Krieger, have met every challenge, yet they haven't faced anything like the complete assemblage of possession, finishing and physicality Germany brings to bear. The United States can limit Germany's chances -- must limit them to advance -- but chances there will be.
Even as the semifinal arrives, the United States has not solved the puzzle posed by its own attacking pieces. The U.S. continues to search for the right lineup, one that will presumably again have room for Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday as they return from yellow card suspensions. What the Americans had is time to figure it out without the pressure of a deficit staring them in the face.
They haven't often led by as much as observers would like, but they haven't ever trailed.
"It's good team defense. That's what it is," Klingenberg said. "I've been saying this a lot, but our forwards and our midfielders, they make it predictable for the back line, so we can close in, shut down space, take away options quickly. It's a credit to our midfielders and our forwards for doing that, but I also have to give a huge shout-out to my back line and Hope because they've been incredible. They've been so fun to play with, and the communication is good.
"I just feel like, if something's going wrong, then Becky has my back. And if something's going wrong for Becky, then Julie has her back. And if something's going wrong for Julie, then so on and so forth."
So on and so forth, though not much of a nickname, is where Solo comes in Tuesday. When all else fails -- and all else will fail at some point in a game such as this -- she is the last line.
"I tell you, how I feel with having Hope back there is extreme confidence," U.S. forward Amy Rodriguez said. "She's the best keeper in the world. We're lucky to have her. So having her back there and knowing she's got that held up and not letting anything in, it's really confidence-[boosting]."
Will the United States be in Vancouver for Sunday's final? That might depend on what Solo has to say about it.