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BEIJING 2008 : HELENE ELLIOTT

Solo's net play anchors a team gold

August 22, 2008|HELENE ELLIOTT

BEIJING — Goalkeeper Hope Solo dug into her bag to retrieve two homemade gold medals moments after the U.S. women's soccer team defeated Brazil in extra time to win the Olympic championship, placing one around her neck and clutching the other a scant few minutes before she would get a genuine medal. Exactly why she did that remains a mystery.

Solo repeatedly parried questions about it Thursday, after her stellar performance allowed the U.S. to hold off Brazil's early forays and made Carli Lloyd's 96th-minute goal hold up for a 1-0 victory on a soggy field at Workers' Stadium.

"There's no story behind that," said Solo, who stopped six shots on goal, including a dazzling 72nd-minute save with her right hand on a blast by the clever forward Marta.

"There's really no story."

It's easy to guess one of the fakes stood in for the prize she believed would have been hers if she had started against Brazil in the semifinals of last year's World Cup, also played in China.

Solo was replaced by Briana Scurry for that game, a 4-0 loss. Afterward, Solo said she could have stopped the shots that eluded Scurry. For that disloyalty she was banished from the team and shunned by most of her teammates, a sentence lifted when Pia Sundhage succeeded Greg Ryan as the team's coach last November.

"Pia's just a great leader. She came in here and set a new tone for us," Solo said. "She brought in new players and created a new playing style, a new system.

"You had to forget everything in order to get this medal and win like we did tonight."

The significance of the second makeshift medal is more difficult to fathom.

It could have been for good luck. Or for consolation in case the U.S. women proved unable to subdue the spirited and skillful Brazilians.

This mystery may never be solved. It may not matter much, because Solo's sureness and her teammates' cohesiveness led the U.S. to a second successive Olympic title and third in four tournaments since women's soccer was added to the Games.

It also was the team's first major title since the pioneering players who were the face of the game for so long exited after a 2-1 overtime victory over Brazil at the 2004 Athens Games.

No one missed that point.

"It meant a lot to us to win this game because now it's no longer the Julie Foudy-Mia Hamm Show, you know?" defender Kate Markgraf said.

"This team could actually win something."

They won here despite losing their opener to Norway, which required some mental and emotional regrouping. Led by Sundhage, who encouraged them to let Lloyd and Shannon Boxx control the game from the midfeld, the U.S. women weathered some sticky moments in the first half Thursday before they got their equilibrium and began to stir offensively.

"We definitely sat back a bit," said forward Amy Rodriguez of Lake Forest, whose pass set up Lloyd for a left-footed shot just outside the box that skipped past the arm of Brazilian goalkeeper Barbara.

"We wanted to use our patience against them because we knew when they attacked they were going to come full force. We had to be patient, keep our positioning and keep our shape because that's what was going to get us far in the game, and I think we did a good job of that."

When the brilliant Brazilians used their ball skills to dodge defenders, Solo was there to stymie them. She saved the U.S. team's medal chances with that save on Marta, a blast that Brazil's coach, Jorge Barcellos, expected to land in the net.

"She really got into that ball and had a certain move to the ball," Barcellos said. "I was ready to get up and celebrate."

Solo, he said, "is a great player, especially on crossed balls. She is very assured."

She communicated that to her teammates.

"Hope was a rock in net for us," Rodriguez said. "She had some unbelievable saves. Point blank too. We're all so proud of her. We know she has our back and we have hers."

If that wasn't true a year ago, Solo seemed inclined to let bygones be gone.

"This gold medal, it has nothing to do with last year," she said. "This gold medal has nothing to do with whether healing has taken place. Healing had to take place in my own heart and my own mind to even get this far.

"With that said, as a team winning a gold medal I feel on top of the world. I feel like I'm in cloud nine. I don't think it has registered with me quite yet. It's amazing."

Forward Natasha Kai, brought in for her fresh legs during the first 15-minute extra-time period, said Solo's estrangement is no longer a topic of discussion.

"You forgive and you forget," Kai said. "Hope's an amazing person. She's a part of our team. We love her and we love each other, and that's the beauty of it."

All that love got each of them a beautiful gold medal.

"Bling," Kai said, cheerfully. "It's bling."

And it was a real medal. No explanations needed for how Solo got that one.

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Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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Soccer

Women's Final

*--* Medal winners G: United States

S: Brazil

B: Germany *--*

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