Hope Solo act may be wearing thin with U.S. Soccer

Latest controversy involving star goalie Hope Solo has jeopardized her spot on U.S. team before World Cup

The U.S. women's soccer team is in Europe this week for a pair of friendlies, readying for the start of the World Cup in four months. Who will be the American goalkeeper in that tournament is an open question.

Hope Solo, at 33, is still considered one of the best goalies in the world, but she isn't traveling with the U.S. squad because of her latest episode of self-destructive and off-putting behavior.

She was suspended by U.S. Soccer for 30 days and sent home from training camp on Jan. 21 after her husband, former NFL tight end Jerramy Stevens, was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence near the team's Manhattan Beach hotel at 1:32 a.m. on Jan. 19.

Solo, a passenger in the vehicle, was not arrested. U.S. Soccer officials felt Solo exercised poor judgment by staying out so late during camp and getting in a car with an impaired driver. They were also livid that Stevens was driving a team van — opening up serious liability issues.

The incident occurred less than a week after a judge in Kirkland, Wash., dismissed misdemeanor domestic assault charges against Solo, who was arrested last June after a scuffle with her half-sister and 17-year-old nephew.

Solo continued to play during legal proceedings, a decision that prompted U.S. Soccer to be heavily criticized.

Solo showed contrition after her suspension, saying in a statement that she "accepts and respects" the federation's decision, and she apologized for "disappointing" her teammates, coaches and the federation.

But neither soccer's governing body nor U.S. Coach Jill Ellis has outlined the stipulations for Solo's return or guaranteed she would be reinstated before the World Cup begins in Canada, leaving many people — including Solo's teammates — to wonder if faith has finally been lost in Hope.

"Hope has created too much controversy over the years and recently has made too many mistakes," said Tony DiCicco, who coached the U.S. women to their last World Cup title in 1999. "I think her teammates and coaches may be giving up on her and are considering going to the World Cup without her."

U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati confirmed as much. Asked on a conference call last month if he could envision a scenario in which Solo would be left off the team, he said, "Sure."

"Hope has been given time to deal with some issues," Gulati said. "And there are a number of things she is being asked to do."

The feelings of Ellis and the players remain private for now. The team has refused to make them available for comment about Solo. The goalie declined to be interviewed for this story.

"I think this is a tipping-point moment, for sure," said former national team midfielder Brandi Chastain, whose dramatic penalty-kick shootout goal gave the U.S. the win over China in the 1999 World Cup final. "It's a critical moment for Hope because she has to prove to everybody that being on the national team is more about the team than it is about her, and that hasn't been her M.O.

"I think she definitely possesses qualities that make her incredibly valuable as a goalie, but is she invaluable? No. There's not one player in the world, even Messi or Marta, who is invaluable."

Ellis and U.S. Soccer have time to determine whether Solo's talent and experience on the field are worth the controversy that follows her off it. How backup goalies Ashlyn Harris and Nicole Barnhart perform in Europe will weigh in the decision. The U.S. women lost to France, 2-0, Sunday with Harris in goal. The U.S. plays England on Friday.

"It's another distraction that's not wanted," former U.S. team midfielder Julie Foudy said in an interview with espnW.com. "It's more questions, more drama."

DiCicco, who has worked as an ESPN commentator and will join Fox's crew for this summer's World Cup, believes the U.S. is better off with Solo.

"In my opinion, she's still the best goalie out there," DiCicco, 66, said. "As a coach, I would not give up on Hope because she has played every minute of the last two Olympics and the 2011 World Cup. For other keepers, playing in friendlies and the Algarve Cup doesn't come close to replicating the World Cup.

"I think it's up to Hope if she will be in the World Cup or not. She has one last chance to get it right. She will have to come back and be the model teammate and citizen."

That's been a challenge for Solo dating back to 2007, when her outburst after she was benched for a World Cup semifinal against Brazil got her sent home from Beijing a game before the tournament ended.

Solo arrived in China that September with a heavy heart. Three months earlier, her father, Jeffrey Solo, a Vietnam veteran who left his family and decided to become homeless while Hope was in grade school, had died of heart failure.

The two reconnected while Hope played at the University of Washington from 1999-2002, Jeffrey living in a tent in the woods a few miles from the Seattle campus yet finding a way to attend every home game.

Before the World Cup opener against North Korea, Solo sprinkled a portion of her father's ashes between the goal posts.

After a shaky start — she gave up two goals in the first game — Solo shined in shutouts of Sweden, Nigeria and England, showing the kind of athleticism, aggressiveness, instincts and confidence that have helped her amass a U.S. women's record of 77 shutouts in 161 games.

But before the semifinals, then-coach Greg Ryan, playing a hunch, started 36-year-old goalie Briana Scurry, one of the heroes of the 1999 team who had a history of strong performances against Brazil. The U.S. lost, 4-0, and Solo fumed.

"It was the wrong decision," Solo said. "There's no doubt in my mind I would have made those saves. You have to live in the present. You can't live by big names. You can't live in the past."

Solo's reaction made her something of a pariah on the team, though it didn't prevent her from anchoring Olympic gold-medal runs in 2008 and 2012 and earning the Golden Glove award for best goalkeeper in the 2011 World Cup, where the U.S. lost the final to Japan in a penalty-kick shootout.

But controversy seems to be a constant companion.

Solo was a guest on NBC's Today Show during the 2008 Olympics. She admitted a few years later that she was drunk during the appearance. She tested positive for a banned diuretic before the 2012 Olympics but received a warning, not a ban.

After Chastain criticized U.S. defender Rachel Buehler during NBC's coverage of the 2012 Olympics, Solo went on a Twitter rant, saying, "It's too bad we can't have commentators who . . . know more about the game." That earned a stern reprimand — but no punishment — from then-coach Pia Sundhage.

In November 2012, Stevens, who has had several brushes with law including a sexual assault allegation and an arrest on suspicion of felony battery, was arrested on suspicion of assault after an altercation in which Solo was injured. A judge released Stevens, citing a lack of evidence, and he and Solo were married the next day.

The family feud that led to Solo's arrest and a charge of fourth-degree domestic assault happened last June.

According to statements given to police, Solo and her half-sister, Teresa Obert, were "drinking wine together" when Solo and Obert's 17-year-old son exchanged critical comments toward each other.

Obert reportedly told police that Solo attacked her son, and that when she tried to pull Solo off her son, Solo "punched me in the face." Obert reportedly said that while she and Solo scuffled, the 17-year-old broke a wooden broomstick over Solo's head.

Police identified Solo as the primary aggressor and charged her with two misdemeanor counts of assault. Solo pleaded not guilty, and her attorney, Todd Maybrown, said in court papers that Solo was not the aggressor but the victim, having defended herself after being hit over the head with a broomstick.

U.S. Soccer's decision to allow Solo to play during the legal process sparked controversy in light of the domestic violence charges facing — and subsequent suspensions of — NFL players Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson.

In an October op-ed column for USA Today, Jillian Loyden, a former backup goalie to Solo whose sister was killed in 2012 — allegedly at the hands of her former fiance — said Solo should have been suspended.

"U.S. Soccer needs to send the right message," Loyden wrote. "They need to communicate that domestic violence is never OK and that it will not be tolerated."

After Obert and her son failed twice to show up for interviews with Solo's defense attorneys, a judge dismissed the domestic assault charges on Jan. 13. "I am so happy and relieved to finally have it all behind me," Solo said in a statement.

A week later, after her husband's DUI arrest and her suspension, Solo had a slew of new problems.

"The No. 1 thing that separates Hope from other goalies around the world is her high self-confidence, her belief that she dominates the box," Chastain said. "You want a goalie who can thrust her persona on this area and say to the other team, 'You're not going to penetrate this goal, and if you come in here you'll be denied.' In that way, she has such great qualities.

"But you also need someone in that position who is going to make sound choices, who is going to be composed and reliable. And that's where she struggles."

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

Twitter: @MikeDiGiovanna

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