Hope Solo keeping up with expectations for U.S. women's soccer

Hope Solo is sitting in a conference room 22 floors above Wilshire Boulevard, weeping.

Which is surprising for two reasons.

For starters, Solo, arguably the most dominating soccer goalkeeper in the world, male or female, rarely sits still, dashing instead from the Women's World Cup to "Dancing With the Stars," from a charity event for tsunami victims in Japan to a TV interview in West Los Angeles.

Second — and this is important — she rarely cries. That would suggest she's vulnerable, and when your parents divorce before you've finished first grade, and when your father dies two months before the biggest tournament of your career, vulnerability is a trait you're not allowed to show.

"It can be a lonely world as a goalkeeper," says Paul Rogers, who coaches the position for the women's U.S. national team.

Scratch away that rough exterior and you'll find that Solo is dealing with many conflicting emotions as she prepares for this summer's Olympic Games, which could be the final major competition of an unparalleled career.

She had hoped her grandfather and stepfather would be able to share that with her, but her grandfather, with whom she was especially close, died in the run-up to January's Olympic trials. And, over the last 18 months, her 59-year-old stepfather, Glenn Burnett, has been shuttling in and out of hospitals all over the state of Washington with a serious, if somewhat indescribable, illness.

"We're hoping he takes another breath," a teary-eyed Solo says. "It's too complicated to even understand. It started with pneumonia and it's been infection and infection.

"I just hope he's around past the Olympics."

If the story sounds familiar, it should. Five years ago, on the eve of her first World Cup, Solo's biological father, Jeffrey, died of a heart attack. He was Solo's first soccer coach — her first opponent too, in backyard games with her siblings — and the two stayed in contact even after he left home when his daughter was 6.

Solo took more than a memory to that World Cup, sprinkling her father's ashes around the goal box before her four starts, three of which ended in shutouts. She was inexplicably benched for the semifinal with Brazil, however, and when the U.S. was routed, 4-0, the emotions of a family tragedy largely hidden from public view bubbled over, fueling an ugly tirade that briefly made her a pariah on her own team.

For some, those first appearances of a feisty, combative young woman endure — especially after backstage footage from last fall's usually serene "Dancing With the Stars" showed her complaining about her scores and telling the judges to "kiss my booty."

Combine that with her habits of speaking her mind and bristling or rolling her eyes at media questions she considers uninformed, and it's easy to see how Solo has earned a reputation as a drama queen.

The reality is far more complicated. Solo is a self-professed bookish loner who, while on the road, often chooses the company of a nonfiction bestseller over that of her teammates.

"I'm trying to overcome those moments of being shy," says Solo, who studied economics and speech communication at the University of Washington. "In front of the world, all of a sudden I'm a great athlete and I'm put into an environment with 25 other women and I'm expected to go to team meals, team functions.

"I just want to stay in my hotel room, read my book. I enjoy that private time. And it doesn't go over well on a team. But outspoken? I don't want to say outspoken."

And on the field she has been outstanding. Since that first World Cup five years ago, Solo, who will turn 31 three days after the Olympic opening ceremony, has lost only three of the 62 games in which she's played, with more shutouts (34) than goals allowed (25).

"She reads the game well. Very, very quick reactions," Rogers says. "And she's decisive. Once she's going into a situation, she'll read it real quick and then react to it and stay with the reaction rather than trying to second-guess.

"That's what makes her a little bit better."

Still, Solo and her teammates on the world's top-ranked team will be facing enormous expectations this summer since the U.S. has won three of the four Olympic gold medals awarded in women's soccer — and the only time it didn't win, in 2000, it lost the final in overtime.

Turning that rush for gold into a gold mine, meanwhile, is the challenge facing Solo's agent, Richard Motzkin. Aside from her contract with U.S. Soccer and an even smaller salary from the Seattle Sounders Women of the United Soccer Leagues' W-League, Solo's earnings depend on what Motzkin can scrape together through sponsorships, commercials and appearances — deals that earned her more than $1 million in the last eight months, he said.

It's seasonal work, though, so shortly after the Olympic flame goes out in London, Solo's fame could quickly flicker out as well. That makes the next several months important ones for Solo and Motzkin.

"Outside of Michael Phelps, I think she'll be the highest-profile U.S. athlete heading into the London Olympics," Motzkin said. "By nature that makes her sort of the highest-profile female U.S. athlete in any sport."

But that's not all she has going for her. The name, Hope Solo, is a marketer's dream, part optimism, part "Star Wars." Then there's her fashion-model good looks — picture a taller, more muscular version of auburn-haired actress Ellen Pompeo from "Grey's Anatomy" — that have already landed her on the cover of Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine's "body issue" as well as mainstream recognition thanks to her long run on "Dancing With the Stars."

Add it up and Motzkin says Solo will be ubiquitous come midsummer when the Olympics kick off and her autobiography, "Solo: A Memoir of Hope," co-written by Ann Killion, is released.

"You will see some sports-related stuff, but now you're going to see more the fashion magazines," he says. "She's going to be part of a very big campaign for a beauty care product line that's going to come out with a national TV commercial.

"When an athlete can sort of break through into products that typically are for entertainers and actresses and be part of that crossover into sort of the general mainstream, it really bodes well for her to increase her popularity and increase her exposure."

All that works only if the U.S. wins in London, though. After all, who wants to wear the same eyeliner as a silver medalist?

"Nothing's going to happen unless we come home with the gold medal," Solo agrees. "You can predict all you want, but everybody knows what predictions get you."

Yet despite the pressure, Solo promises to enjoy the Olympic experience because she knows it could be among her last with the national team. The wear and tear of 25 years of competitive soccer is beginning to exact a heavy toll, with a shoulder injury that required surgery bothering her before last summer's World Cup and a pulled quadriceps slowing her during January's Olympic trials.

So she plans to approach the London Olympics the same way she did the World Cup in Germany.

"I'm just going to embrace every experience. Off the field, on the field, the fans," she says. "I would walk into the stadium and I smelled the dew in the air. I could hear the crowd. I would wave to the fans. I got involved in every moment. And that's what I want out of these Olympics.

"I don't just want to focus on soccer, soccer, soccer. You're going to look back 20 years from now and of course you're going to remember the games. But I'm going to remember seeing my family in the stands."

Solo's hope now is that none of her family's seats are empty.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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