Finding her way HOME
Hope Solo seems invulnerable -- tall, strong, good looking -- until she speaks of her father. Then her voice shakes and her eyes glisten and you understand how she found herself in the middle of a storm late last year: the best female soccer goalie in America, kicked off the national team during the World Cup, scorned by her coach and teammates for speaking her mind.
On a recent morning in Hermosa Beach, Solo, 26, still sweating after a tough practice, sits at a cafe. She speaks of reclaiming her career and of the coming Olympics. She speaks of last year’s painful troubles. Weaving through all of this is her dad.
“He always said what he believed, no matter who he was talking to,” she says.
This is a way of explaining what happened in Beijing last September, at the World Cup. She says her father would have understood why she spoke out about being suddenly benched before the biggest game she would have ever played. She’s certain of this. Even if, while remembering her father, a mysterious man, she is uncertain of much else.
She’s unsure, for instance, of the horrors he saw in Vietnam, or if what he saw in those jungles made him what he would become. He refused to talk about it. She doesn’t really know why, when she was in grade school and living in eastern Washington, he walked from his family. Johnny Solo didn’t just leave; he left and decided to become homeless.
They’d always been close. Before he left home, he gave her a nickname, “Baby Hope,” the sweetest part of his life. He had been her first soccer coach, and she’d grown up hanging on his every word. So it was that in those first few years, as he lived on the streets of Seattle, he kept in touch through weekly letters and she never lost her love for him.
“People said terrible things about my dad,” she says, somber now. “I never lost faith.”
In time, she would become a formidable athlete, one of the best high school soccer players in the nation, by 2001 an All-American at the University of Washington.
She was rangy and skilled. Just like her father, she was also aggressive.
She smiles, thinking of the knife he carried and how he said he would be unafraid to use it if attacked. She chuckles, remembering how, when businessmen approached and offered money that he had not asked for, he’d puff out his thick chest and snarl expletives. He was too proud for handouts.
Their bond had a chance to grow while she was in college, both of them living in Seattle.
Refusing shelter, he lived just a few miles from her, sleeping in a green tent in an outcropping of woods a few miles from campus.
He made it to every home game, trudging toward her with a limp, wearing a thick, foul-smelling coat. She says she learned to get over the embarrassment. And she also found herself trudging toward him, in the woods where he lived, walking through the mud to his tent. They’d sit there for hours, eating macaroni and cheese she had made.
He told her to learn from his life, the good and the bad. Baby Hope, don’t ever let go of your family. Baby Hope, believe in yourself . . . don’t be afraid of anyone.
By 2005, she’d graduated, played in Europe, and had become the top goalie on the U.S. women’s soccer team.
Her father’s great wish was to watch just once from the stands as she played for her country. Last summer, with a game scheduled near New York, she arranged for him to come. He’d grown up in the Bronx. She didn’t know much more. Finally, he was going to walk her through the streets he’d played in as a boy, sharing parts of his life he’d always held tight.
“Everything was set,” she says.
It was June. She was in Cleveland. They spoke on the phone. Goodbye, Baby Hope, he said, hanging up. Goodbye.
A few hours later, another phone call came. Solo listened as a voice on the other end said that Johnny Solo’s heart had given out. He was dead.
She wasn’t sure if she could play again. Then she stiffened her spine the way her father would have and went to the World Cup.
With the first game about to begin, between the goal posts, she sprinkled a portion of his ashes around her. She could feel him pushing her, and she played like it, bouncing back from an early rough patch, not giving up a goal in two straight games.
But before the semifinals against powerful Brazil, Solo’s coach, Greg Ryan, pulled her aside and delivered a surprise: She was being benched. Ryan simply had a hunch about Briana Scurry, a hero of the seminal moment in U.S. women’s soccer, the 1999 World Cup.
Sure enough, Scurry played against Brazil -- and gave up four goals.
Maybe it was the emotional toll from her father’s sudden death, laid bare by the benching. Maybe she just did what he would have done. For whatever reason, when reporters asked about watching the game from the sidelines, Hope Solo looked them in the eye and let loose: It was “the wrong decision, and I think anybody that knows anything about the game knows that.”
“There’s no doubt in my mind,” she continued, “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.”
Watching from afar, I thought that this was refreshing candor from an athlete, that it was particularly good to see a female athlete speak with such force, and that a real team should be able to weather this kind of dissent.
But her coach and teammates thought Solo was being selfish. Despite her apologies and with the consolation game remaining, she was kicked off the team and sent home. Alone. It wasn’t clear whether she would ever return to the national squad.
In fact, she has returned, welcomed by a new coach. Solo admits that there are still frayed nerves, doubts from teammates and her own worries, but she’s intent on regaining trust.
In October, she joined the team for a series of exhibition games against Mexico. She didn’t play, but it was a start.
She kept pushing, keeping her mouth shut, playing well in a series of practices held recently in Carson. In March, at the Algarve Cup in Portugal, she started in goal again, helping lead the U.S. to a championship. Last week, in Mexico, she helped her team qualify for Beijing, not giving up a goal in a hard-fought victory over Costa Rica. The Olympics approach. China, this summer. She has dreamed of this for nearly as far back as her memory goes. She thinks of returning there and tears flow. It’s her father, how she has missed him, how she wishes he were here to encourage her.
“All of this made me realize that I’m like him in so many ways,” she says. “I’ll always be proud of that. . . . Every game I play from now on, I’ll feel him with me.”
Kurt Streeter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns by Streeter, go to latimes.com/streeter.