For years, U.S. Soccer enabled Hope Solo's behavior, and then ended up kicking her off the women's national team because of it.
Photo by Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
U.S. Soccer never did figure out how to handle Hope Solo. Not when she first established herself as the starting goalkeeper in 2005, and not now, when the federation seems to have shoved her out the backdoor by means of a 6-month suspension and by terminating her national team contract.
In her laureled national team career, Solo backstopped the U.S. to two Women's World Cup finals and two Olympic gold medals. She was named goalkeeper of the tournament at both those World Cups and has set U.S. goalkeeper records for career appearances, starts, wins and shutouts. But off the field, she was a decade-long headache to the federation.
Run-ins with the law, domestic violence cases, shit-talking coaches and opponents – Solo's rap sheet was long.
Yet, somehow, her unceremonious and very public termination from the national team – it's unlikely that she'll be brought back for the 2019 Women's World Cup, just before she turns 38 – feels draconian.
And at least a little sexist.
The straw that broke the camel's back, in U.S. Soccer's unchallenged telling of the affair, was Solo calling Sweden "cowards" for playing a tactically conservative game against the Americans in the quarterfinals of the Rio Olympics. The Swedes, coached by a former U.S. manager, rode a defensive strategy all the way to penalties against the superior U.S. team and prevailed in the shootout. Solo, in her post-game ire, made it plain that she did not care for this perfectly legitimate approach.
It was a minor infraction. Yet it had major consequences.
When Cristiano Ronaldo leveled a similar charge at Iceland during Euro 2016, when his Portugal had been duped in similar tactical fashion – he said they had "a small mentality" – it was talked about for a few days and then forgotten.
"I thought they'd won the Euros the way they celebrated at the end. It was unbelievable. We tried hard to win the game and Iceland didn't try anything. This, in my opinion, shows a small mentality and they are not going to do anything in the competition."
When Solo did the same, it spelled the end for her national team career. It's worth noting that the U.S. are only scheduled to play friendlies in the next six months during her suspension. Solo was on the team during back to back summers when the U.S. played in the Women's World Cup in 2015 and then in Rio.
Solo, however, was a problem of the federation's own making. Its ham-fisted solutions to her persistent issues, allowed an ongoing PR debacle to decay ever further. When she publicly put her coach on blast in 2007, she was kicked off the team for a few meaningless games and shunned by her teammates for a while. And then she was back.
She publicly criticized former teammate Brandi Chastain, by then an analyst for NBC, for not rooting for the team from the booth in 2012. No punishment. A public and explosive domestic violence case, in which she was alleged to have physically abused her half-sister and nephew, resulted in no discipline at all, as the case lingers.
When she and her husband, former NFL enfant terrible Jerramy Stevens, borrowed a team van and were pulled over and charged with DUI, Solo was suspended 30 days.
The disciplinary responses have been bungled at worst and uneven at best. And now, following perhaps the least significant of all those missteps, she has been ostracized as if U.S. Soccer is trying to implement some corrective measure for years of willfully overlooking her transgressions.
But the punishment underscores an issue larger than the American governing body for soccer's inability to properly address problems within its own ranks.
There's an equality problem here.
The women's team has been systematically positioned by U.S. soccer as a vehicle for the dreams of "all the little girls out there", the spirit of gender equality, and of Title XI success.
And that has meant that, while the men's team have been allowed to just be another sports team, the women are held to a higher standard—a double standard.
Remember when Michael Bradley ranted about "all the fucking experts in America, everybody who thinks they know about soccer" at the 2009 Confederations Cup, when pressure had built on then-head coach Bob Bradley, his father? Probably not, because it received little coverage. He basically insulted the national team's rightfully critical fan base. And he wasn't so much as reprimanded. Not publicly anyway, and that's sort of the point. Solo's punishment was shouted from the rooftops. Bradley is now the men's team's captain.
Or recall when Clint Dempsey accosted a referee in a 2015 U.S. Open Cup game, a competition run by U.S. Soccer itself? He was suspended from that tournament for two years and barred from his next three games in any competition. But that sentence, conveniently, was served in Major League Soccer and up by the time the national team returned to action. He was stripped of his captaincy, but he was nevertheless called up for the Gold Cup without question.
Solo was extended no such courtesies.
It was probably always likely that Solo's all-time national team great national team career would end in some kind of unbecoming way. Her suspension, seemingly terminal to her chances of representing her country in the future, was a logical outcome. Because even as she was starring in goal, Hope Solo was a public relations quandary that vexed U.S. Soccer until the apparent end.