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Column: U.S. Soccer contemplates a future without Hope

U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo looks on at halftime of a CONCACAF Olympic qualifying match against Mexico on Feb. 13.
(Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press)

Hope Solo’s days with the women’s national soccer team may not be over, but they are certainly numbered.

Yet that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve seen the last of her in a U.S. uniform.

Solo was given a six-month suspension and her contract with U.S. Soccer was terminated last week over ill-considered comments she made following her team’s quarterfinal loss to Sweden in the Olympic soccer tournament, a clear sign the federation has grown tired of Solo’s inability to control herself.

She is eligible to be called up to the team in February, though it’s unlikely she’ll be invited back then despite the fact she’s the best goalkeeper in the history of women’s soccer.

In 15 years with the national team, Solo made 202 international appearances, winning 153 games and posting 102 shutouts. No one else is even close to any of those numbers — nor will anyone else ever get close to those numbers.

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But Solo also set a record for off-the-field controversy and chaos.

Over the last decade she has been charged with two counts of domestic violence, failed a drug test, was riding shotgun in a team van when her husband was arrested for DUI, admitted she appeared on national television drunk and was suspended from the team three times.

Given that track record, Solo’s comments after the Olympic loss, in which she called the Swedes “a bunch of cowards,” seemed mild by comparison. The difference this time is neither her teammates nor U.S. Soccer rushed to her defense.

Megan Rapinoe, an influential team leader, told NBC Sports she was “really disappointed” in Solo while Alex Morgan said, “I don’t agree with the things that she said.”

But a bigger factor in Solo’s suddenly uncertain future with the national team may be the timing of her remarks. In the past, U.S. Soccer has tended to forgive Solo’s behavior to keep her on the field in important tournaments — as it did during last summer’s Women’s World Cup, when federation President Sunil Gulati ignored calls from Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and others to dismiss Solo from the team after ESPN revealed damning details from her arrest on domestic-violence charges a year earlier.

However this time the next World Cup game is three years, not three days, away. That gives Coach Jill Ellis plenty of time to find a replacement for Solo, who will be 37 by the time the 2019 tournament kicks off.

And that makes this the most opportune time for U.S. Soccer to finally find fault with Solo’s behavior.

“Taking into consideration the past incidents involving Hope, as well as the private conversations we’ve had requiring her to conduct herself in a manner befitting a U.S. national team member, U.S. Soccer determined this is the appropriate disciplinary action,” Gulati said in announcing Solo’s suspension.

Solo responded with a statement of her own: “For 17 years, I dedicated my life to the U.S. Women’s National Team and did the job of a pro athlete the only way I knew how — with passion, tenacity, an unrelenting commitment to be the best goalkeeper in the world, not just for my country, but to elevate the sport for the next generation of female athletes. In those commitments, I have never wavered. And with so much more to give, I am saddened by the federation’s decision to terminate my contract.”

Here’s what happens next.

  • Rich Nichols, general counsel for the women’s national team players association, will file an appeal, having called Solo’s termination “excessive, unprecedented, disproportionate, and a violation of … First Amendment Rights.”
  • Ellis will begin auditioning new goalkeepers, starting during next month’s friendlies with Thailand and the Netherlands. She may have to cast a wide net though since only two players called up in the last year — Alyssa Naeher and Ashlyn Harris — have played a game in goal for the national team and both will be over 30 by the 2019 World Cup in France.
  • Although Solo’s future in the National Women’s Soccer League is not affected by U.S. Soccer’s actions, her salary may be. She will get three months’ severance pay from U.S. Soccer and her NWSL salary, which is paid by the federation, reportedly will not be affected. Next season could be a different story, though. On Saturday, Solo was granted an indefinite leave by her club, the Seattle Reign, but it’s likely she’ll return and continue to play well, challenging U.S. Soccer to kiss and make up.

Solo’s detractors are correct when they say her inability to exhibit even a modest amount of self control has damaged the reputation of a women’s national team that has otherwise remained above reproach.
But Solo’s defenders are equally justified in charging a double standard regarding the treatment of male and female athletes. Latrell Sprewell played eight more years in the NBA after choking his coach. Kobe Bryant played 13 more years for the Lakers after being accused of rape and Adam “Pacman” Jones was given a series of second chances in the NFL after repeated run-ins with the law.

Solo had her contract terminated after she expressed her opinion — not a particularly unpopular one — moments after an emotional game.

But despite all the lines that were drawn in the sand last week, Solo’s future with the national team ultimately hangs on one thing: can history’s greatest goalkeeper be replaced?

If Ellis can do that, Solo will quickly fade away. If not, Solo better begin brushing up on her French because she’ll need it for the next World Cup.

U.S. goaltender Hope Solo gives up a goal to Sweden during a penalty shootout in a quarterfinal match of the 2016 Olympics.
U.S. goaltender Hope Solo gives up a goal to Sweden during a penalty shootout in a quarterfinal match of the 2016 Olympics.
(Andressa Anholete / EPA )

WHAT SHE SAID

After the U.S. team’s quarterfinal loss to Sweden, in a penalty-kick shootout, at the Rio Olympics, Solo was critical of Swedish Coach Pia Sundhage’s defensive game plan:

“We played a creative game. We had many opportunities on goal. We showed a lot of heart. We came back from a goal down. I’m very proud of this team. We played a bunch of cowards. The best team did not win today. I strongly, firmly believe that.

“Sweden dropped back. They didn’t want to open play. They didn’t want to pass the ball around. They didn’t want to play great soccer, entertaining soccer. It was a combative game. A physical game. Exactly what they wanted. Exactly what their game plan was. We had that style of play when Pia was our coach. I think it was very cowardly. But they won, they’re moving on. And we’re going home,”

WHAT SHE DID

Solo’s meltdown wasn’t the first time she’s gotten in trouble for something that’s happened away from the field. Here’s a list of some of Solo’s other notable transgressions:

2007: After she was replaced by Briana Scurry for a World Cup semifinal the U.S. lost to Brazil, Solo criticized Coach Greg Ryan. “It was the wrong decision, and I think anybody that knows anything about the game knows that. There’s no doubt in my mind I would have made those saves.” She was immediately dismissed from the team, a sanction captain Kristine Lilly said was made by the players. Solo was reinstated as the starting goalkeeper by new Coach Pia Sundhage ahead of the 2008 Olympics.

2008: After a sterling performance by Solo helped the U.S. win the Olympic title in Beijing, she appeared on NBC’s “Today” appearing slightly disoriented and briefly confusing the Olympics with the World Cup. In a magazine article four years later Solo said she went on the air drunk.

2012: In the lead-up to the Olympics, Solo received a public warning after a urine test came back positive for Canrenone, a banned steroidal antimineralocorticoid. She was quickly cleared of any intentional wrongdoing and allowed to play in London, where she went on a Twitter tirade against NBC commentator and former national team star Brandi Chastain over mildly critical comments Chastain had made about the U.S. team. Solo was rebuked by Sundhage and the team’s captains in a private meeting but she was not publicly disciplined.

2014: Solo was arrested and charged with two misdemeanor counts of assault in the fourth degree on suspicion of attacking her half-sister and her nephew. A judge dismissed the charges on technical grounds seven months later, but they were later reinstated on appeal. The case has yet to be resolved and it became an enduring sideshow during the 2015 Women’s World Cup after U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and others admonished U.S. Soccer for allowing Solo to remain on the World Cup roster.

2015: U.S. Soccer suspended Solo for 30 days after her husband, former NFL player Jerramy Stevens, was arrested in Manhattan Beach for DUI while behind the wheel of a U.S. team van. Solo, who was in the passenger seat, was punished for “a poor decision that has resulted in a negative impact on U.S. Soccer and her teammates,” Coach Jill Ellis said.

2016: In the run-up to the Rio Games, Solo repeatedly expressed concerns over the mosquito-borne Zika virus before tweeting out a picture of herself in mosquito netting holding a bottle of insect repellent. Solo was booed lustily by Brazilian fans every time she touched the ball in the tournament.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11


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