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Hope for the future?

Solo's status with the U.S. team may depend on coach

Posted: Saturday September 29, 2007 11:16AM; Updated: Saturday September 29, 2007 11:16AM
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Hope Solo gave up two goals in her four starts as the U.S. goalie at the World Cup.
Hope Solo gave up two goals in her four starts as the U.S. goalie at the World Cup.
Simon Bruty/SI

Nothing livens up a World Cup like a little infighting. The big story in 2002 was Ireland captain Roy Keane lashing out at his coach and his federation, complaining about what he perceived was an amateurish setup for the team in Korea. In one of the best rants in the history of rants, Keane-o berated manager Mick McCarthy, telling him, "Mick, you're a liar.... I didn't rate you as a player, I don't rate you as a manager, and I don't rate you as a person. You're a f---ing wanker and you can stick your World Cup up your arse. The only reason I have any dealings with you is that somehow you are the manager of my country! You can stick it up your bollocks." Keane walked out, and Ireland, after a surprisingly strong run, bowed out on penalties to Spain in the round of 16.

Now we've got the strange case of Hope Solo, the U.S. goalkeeper who reacted to a demotion by ripping her coach ("It was the wrong decision and I think anybody that knows anything about the game knows that") and her replacement, Briana Scurry, who was between the sticks as the U.S. lost to Brazil 4-0 in the semifinals ("There's no doubt in my mind I would have made those saves"). Coach Greg Ryan responded by announcing that for at least the rest of the tournament, Solo is persona non grata. She didn't practice on Saturday and she won't play in Sunday's third-place game against Norway.

After Keane let down his teammates and his country, it was decreed that he'd never play for Ireland again. Of course, when it came time for Irealnd to embark upon qualifying for the 2006 World Cup, guess who was called on to step in and anchor the midfield? Ol' Royston, of course. It was hardly the first (or last) time that a player had fought with a coach and/or teammate and lived to tell about it. So does that mean that Solo will eventually be welcomed back into the fold?

Well, keep in mind that Keane only returned after McCarthy was gone. And that leads us to the one thing that rivals intercinine sniping for World Cup news value: calls for a coach's head while the tournament is still going on. Ryan has been skewered over his decision to bench Solo and has also taken heat for his substitutions against Brazil and for the team's overall play, which has been spotty at times. This morning, U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati met with members of the American press in Shanghai. When asked about Ryan's job status, Gulati said a lot of things, and none of them sounded like an endorsement. He acknowledged that the review of Ryan's status had already begun. He answered a hypothetical question about what kind of coach he'd look for if he decided to make a change. He said he wasn't going to second guess the tactics of his coach, but he also never said that Ryan, whose contract expires at the end of the year, had his full support.

Sunday's game will go a long way towards clearing up Ryan's status. If the U.S. beats a pretty good Norwegian team, it becomes much easier to write off the Brazil game as an aberration, a fluky result enhanced by a bad decision from the referee. (The U.S. played the second half a man down after Shannon Boxx was sent off on a bad call.) If they lose, then suddenly the worst result in the history of the program has been compounded by another loss to a team they should have handled. Brazil has superior individual talent, and you can't teach that. But to lose to Norway, they'd have to be outplayed or outcoached. Neither of those will help Ryan's cause.

If Ryan stays and forgives Solo or if he's fired, then one barrier to her return would be gone. That would leave getting her teammates to accept her as the only thing standing in the way of a comeback. That one might be trickier. As the Keane incident showed, people have a remarkable capacity for forgiveness when it's in their best interest. But one thing that has always been a hallmark of the U.S. women's program is that they've got a bit of an us-against-the-world attitude -- in part, I suppose, because women in sports have a tendency to be looked down upon by an unenlightened yet large segment of fandom. So anything that undermines the "us" part of it is not likely to be forgiven easily. "We are women who fight, and we are a family," forward Abby Wambach said. (It was unclear if she meant that they fight with each other like family members do or if they fight a common enemy; both are true.) Or, as Ryan put it, "Their unity is the quality that defines this group."

Two players, captain Kristine Lilly and Wambach, faced the press. Neither would go into great detail about the amount of input the players had on Ryan's decision, but listening to them and to Ryan, one got the sense that if the players had said, "Greg, it's not that big a deal," he would have listened. But they didn't. "Hope's future isn't in my hands; it's in her own," Wambach said.

Wambach didn't rule out accepting Solo back into the fold, nor did Ryan. Solo is young and brassy, and sometimes that's going to lead to some boat rocking; she's not the first athlete to shoot off her mouth when she should have toed the party line and spoken in clichés. And the fact is, the U.S. is a better team with Solo than without her. Scurry is 36; she could stick around for the 2008 Olympics, but it's no given that she'll be at the top of her game. Take her and Solo out of the picture, and the team has no experienced goalkeeper. (Solo and Scurry have combined to start 64 of the U.S.'s last 69 games.) Whether or not to let her back is going to be a tricky call for Ryan or for whoever has to make it. Asked what she'd do, Wambach said, "I don't make decisions on personnel --and thank God for that."