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Hope Solo sets aside tumult and focuses on her last goal: a World Cup

Since returning to U.S. Soccer after her suspension, Hope Solo has played as well as at any time in her career

Hope Solo heaved a heavy sigh then flashed a smile that looked as insincere as it did uncomfortable.

These were supposed to be the best of times for Solo, who will enter the third and perhaps final World Cup of her stellar career. The tournament opens Saturday, and the U.S. plays its opener June 8 against Australia.

If her team advances to the final in Vancouver — 140 miles from her Seattle-area home — Solo will arrive there owning every significant goalkeeping record in U.S. national team history.

In recent appearances with the U.S. team, though, no one wants to ask her about that. Instead they want to talk about her arrest on suspicion of domestic assault last summer, though the charges were dropped. Or her monthlong suspension from the U.S. team last winter after her husband, former NFL player Jerramy Stevens, was stopped for DUI while behind the wheel of a U.S. Soccer van, with Solo at his side.

"It's no surprise to anybody that it's been a really tough year," Solo says through the plastic smile. "But with that being said, I feel like I'm in the best place of my life. I'm just happy there's been a turnaround.

"I've worked to make further turnarounds for the World Cup."

That plan appears to be working. Since returning to the team in February, Solo has played as well as at any time in her career, posting five consecutive shutouts and giving up just two goals in eight games. And U.S. Coach Jill Ellis believes Solo's suspension and her standout play are linked.

"My perspective is sometimes in life pausing and reflecting is a good thing," Ellis said. "Everybody, I think, has experiences in their life where you sometimes have to sort of take stock of where you are.

"I'm just really pleased with where she is."

But then, soccer has never been the problem for Solo. The 33-year-old's disciplined play on the field is a sharp contrast to her undisciplined what-was-she-thinking behavior off it.

Solo was first suspended from the U.S. team — and ostracized by her teammates — in 2007, after lashing out against her benching during a World Cup semifinal. In the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, she was warned but not sanctioned after testing positive for the banned substance canrenone. And two matches into those London Games she was called before the team's coaches and captains again to explain her Twitter rant against NBC analyst Brandi Chastain.

Controversy, it seems, has never ventured far away. She couldn't even escape it the day before her marriage in the fall of 2012, when Stevens was jailed but not charged on suspicion of attacking his fiancee. Then last June, Solo was arrested on suspicion of the same offense — fourth-degree domestic assault — after an altercation with her half-sister and a teenage nephew at a party.

A judge dismissed the charges in January, when the two relatives failed to appear for interviews. (The Kirkland, Wash., prosecutor's office is challenging that decision and legal briefs on the appeal are scheduled to be filed this summer.)

For Solo, soccer has been her refuge — as it has been throughout a life that actually began in jail. Solo wrote in her 2012 memoir that she was conceived during a conjugal visit at a state prison, where her father was serving time for embezzlement.

Her father, a Vietnam veteran who went by three names, left home when his 7-year-old daughter first began dreaming of the World Cup. He eventually wound up homeless on the streets of Seattle, where he was a person of interest — but later cleared — in a murder case.

Her mother, Solo wrote, drank too much.

Even her teammates weren't always dependable, sometimes turning their backs — as in 2007, when players banned her from team meals and filed off an elevator after Solo got on.

But since Solo returned from her latest suspension — and the counseling and introspection that went with it — she's been a different person and player, some of those same teammates say. More mature. More focused. More determined.

"She has so much clarity right now," Ellis said. "This is as sharp as I've seen Hope."

Midfielder Shannon Boxx, a veteran of that 2007 team, said: "She's the best goalkeeper in the world. And we need her. That's what we focus on. We focus on her as a player. And our teammate.

"And she's been great."

Yet Solo's legacy may ultimately hinge on what happens next.

If she plays well and adds a World Cup title to her two Olympic gold medals, she'll be remembered as the most-decorated goalkeeper in women's soccer history. Anything less and Solo, who turns 34 in July, could begin contemplating retirement following a career marked as much by shortcomings as by success.

But this isn't about redemption, says Solo, who is determined to look forward, not back.

"I'm going after a World Cup. All of us are," she said. "We shouldn't be on this team if we're not going after a World Cup. I could retire today without a World Cup and be proud and happy with everything I've done for the game.

"Will I be satisfied? Absolutely not. Because it's been my dream, as a little girl, to win a World Cup. And I hope I don't retire without one."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: @kbaxter11

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