U.S. women's soccer team in transition as it prepares for World Cup

Star goalkeeper Hope Solo may face an uncertain future as team grows increasingly tired of her behavior

In Pia Sundhage's first meeting as coach of the U.S. women's national soccer team seven years ago, she pulled out a guitar and serenaded the bemused players with Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'."

When new U.S. women's Coach Jill Ellis held her first team meeting eight months ago, it featured a slide show. "I'm not musically inclined," she said by way of explanation.

But if the methods varied, the message was essentially the same, since Ellis' first slide featured a quote from Will Rogers. "Even if you're on the right track," the humorist and philosopher once said, "you'll get run over if you just sit there."

The point is, the U.S. women can no longer simply roll out the ball and expect to win. Instead, Ellis finds herself leading a team in transition less than five months before the World Cup starts — and the continuing soap opera starring diva goalkeeper Hope Solo, who was suspended last week, is only one reason why.

"We have to continue to evolve," Ellis said. "We have to get better in everything we do because we know the rest of the world is better. There's no gap."

The U.S. women's team closed 2014 with just one win in its last four games, falling from the top spot in the FIFA rankings for the first time since February 2008.

Then Ellis, the team's third coach in 28 months, started the new year by calling up a training camp roster that included six players over the age of 30, making it one of the oldest national teams in the world.

As a result, the U.S., a dominant force in the women's game after winning two of the first three World Cups and four of five Olympic tournaments, could go into this spring's tournament in Canada as underdogs.

"Long gone are the days of the Americans being able to just physically beat teams," said U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd, who has spent the last decade with the national team. "Teams are catching us on the physical level. And tactical-wise, teams are getting better and better."

That's certain to mean more changes for the U.S. between now and the World Cup.

Forward Abby Wambach, whose 177 international goals leads all players, male or female, could find her playing time limited in Canada, a concession to both her age — Wambach turns 35 four days before the World Cup opener — and the tournament's punishing artificial turf. Same goes for U.S. Captain Christine Rampone, who will celebrate her 40th birthday in Canada.

"Abby and Rampone are going to have to be managed a little differently," Lloyd said. "They get that, and they understand that."

Tactically, Ellis said she's largely decided on a World Cup game plan and wants to spend the next four months perfecting it. That's why she played two of the last three games in 2014 against eighth-ranked Brazil and will begin 2015 with February friendlies against No. 3 France and No. 6 England.

"You beat a team 6-0, 7-0, you don't, as a coach, analyze that game. You certainly don't as a player analyze that game," said Ellis, whose team won five games by at least five goals last year. "You go into a game that's a hard-fought battle, that's a game where the microscope comes down. Ultimately you learn more about your team when you go against a really strong opponent."

And you learn even more when you go against a really strong opponent without your first-choice goalkeeper. Solo's suspension will keep her out of next month's two European games, giving Ellis a chance to audition backups Ashlyn Harris and Nicole Barnhart.

Strong performances from either could lead to a World Cup snub for Solo, whose antics have become distracting and embarrassing to a veteran U.S. team whose players are tight-knit and hold themselves to a high standard.

Solo was sent home from training camp and suspended 30 days last week after her husband, former NFL player Jerramy Stevens, was arrested and charged for driving under the influence near the team's Manhattan Beach hotel. Solo was not charged in the incident, which occurred at 1:23 a.m. Monday. But her husband was driving a U.S. Soccer van and Solo did not mention the incident to team officials, who heard about the arrest from media reports.

The suspension was announced after two days of meetings involving Ellis, U.S. Soccer officials and players, who have grown increasingly tired of Solo's behavior.

In 2007, Solo was kicked off the team during the World Cup after criticizing Coach Greg Ryan and teammate Briana Scurry following her benching before a semifinal loss to Brazil. A year later, during the Beijing Olympics, Solo appeared on NBC's "Today" show and later said she was drunk. In the run-up to the 2012 London Games, she tested positive for Canrenone, a banned diuretic, receiving a warning but not a ban.

In the last 26 months, Solo has been involved in two domestic abuse cases. In November 2012, Stevens was arrested for assault after an altercation in which Solo was injured. Citing a lack of evidence, a judge released Stevens the next day, and hours later he and Solo were wed. Last June, Solo was arrested and charged with assaulting her half-sister and nephew. That case was dismissed by a judge this month.

A U.S. Soccer official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said Solo's history of bad decisions figured heavily in last week's suspension.

That history will also influence Ellis' decision on whether to reinstate Solo, the U.S. record-holder with 77 shutouts in 161 games. And given the fact the times are a-changin' in women's soccer, the coach may ultimately decide the team is better off without Solo.

"Everything," Ellis said, "will be about building toward putting a championship team together."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: @kbaxter11

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