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

The veteran goalkeeper faces a welter of emotions as the London Olympics draw closer. There's also the matter of post-Games prospects.

April 18, 2012|By Kevin Baxter
  • U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo is dealing with conflicting emotions as she prepares for the 2012 London Olympic Games.
U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo is dealing with conflicting emotions as she prepares… (Toshifumi Kitamura / AFP/Getty…)

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.

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