Hope Solo not only has one of the best names in women’s soccer, but she’s also got the game to back it up. After working for years to break into the top of the U.S. goalkeeping ranks, Solo seems to have made the jump, starting the last four games for the USA and earning shutouts in each. Solo played the final three matches at the 2005 Algarve Cup in Portugal, then went the distance in the USA’s 2-0 victory over Canada on June 26 in Virginia Beach, Va. As the USA prepares to face the Ukraine on Sunday, July 10, at the University of Portland’s Merlo Field (ESPN2 at 3:30 p.m. PT), the Northwest product reflected on her road to the U.S. goal, which took her from the arid plains of Eastern Washington, to the big city of Seattle and then across the world. Solo is enjoying her resurgence in the U.S. net, but knows what it took to get there, and especially what it will take to stay there.
She learned her soccer in Eastern Washington, became an All-American in Western Washington and a professional in Philadelphia, Pa., but U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo had to travel 5,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to find what she really needed: live game experience.
Solo started 68 matches in her career for the University of Washington, but after being drafted fourth overall in the 2003 WUSA Draft by Philadelphia, she suffered a back injury training on the Charge’s rock-hard plastic grass and saw action in just a few games at the end of the season.
With Briana Scurry firmly entrenched in goal at that time and 2000 Olympic starter Siri Mullinix still in the mix, Solo found herself on the outer edge of the U.S. goalkeeping corps.
A veteran of the U.S. Youth National Teams, Solo was the first goalkeeper to start for the USA at the U-16, U-18, U-21 and full national team levels, but some admittedly inconsistent play stunted her rise into the USA’s goalkeeping elite. She earned 12 caps with the USA before the 2005 Algarve Cup, but had not played for the full team since October of 2002.
Always a tremendous athlete and a fundamentally sound goalkeeper, Solo needed more than just training. She needed to play, and play in games that mattered. Without a top U.S. league, she considered her options, talked to the U.S. coaches, did some soul searching…and packed her bags for Europe.
“Originally, (then head coach) April (Heinrichs) and (then goalkeeper coach) Phil Wheddon put the idea in my head that Europe would benefit me,” said Solo. “All I needed was games. I was pretty good technically and physically, but I didn’t have the (high level) games under my belt because I just didn’t play that much in Philadelphia.”
Solo spent almost nine months in 2004 playing in the Swedish First Division for Kopparbergs/Goteberg, and another five months in 2005 playing for Olympic Lyonnaise in France. Those 14 months and almost 40 matches benefited her greatly, and led more than anything, to the success she’s enjoyed so far this year.
“Playing in those leagues really helped my decision making,” said Solo, who earned a tough shutout against Germany in the 2005 Algarve Cup championship game. “I couldn’t communicate very well with my Swedish or French teammates, so I had to rely on my own ability to read the game and make my own decisions. It made me become comfortable with myself in uncomfortable situations.”
With the lightning-fast pace at which the international game is played, “uncomfortable situations” are a common part of the job description for any top-flight goalkeeper. Early in her national team career, Solo struggled with that aspect of her game, but recognized the problems and knew how to solve them.
“People questioned my commitment to the game,” said Solo of her post-college career. “I knew I was committed, and that I was ready to do anything that would help make myself better. I didn’t go over there prove to anyone that I was committed. I went overseas because it was the best environment for me at the time, but at the same time, I think it showed the coaches that I was willing to make sacrifices to get better. I wasn’t getting any games with the national team, or even much training, so off to Sweden I went.”
Solo’s journey began in Gothenburg, a big Swedish city with a small town feel. Solo lived alone, and could have retreated into a shell as a small-town girl in a new country. But she found the soccer very challenging and was up for an adventure, eventually having all kinds of fun during her down time.
“It was amazing,” said Solo of her time in Sweden. “The Swedes are the most wonderful people and I made friends that I will have for the rest of my life. Everyone’s families just took me in as one of one of their own. I didn’t get nearly as lonely as I could have.”
Solo helped her club to a surprise fourth-place finish in the 12-team league, a tremendous achievement for the young squad, and among the media was widely regarded as one of the top goalkeepers in the league.
“It was as professional as it could be with the funds that they had and they treated me very professionally,” said Solo. “I really enjoyed my time in Gothenburg.”
Towards the end of her Swedish season, Solo got an unexpected phone call from Wheddon, who asked, “Would you want to be the alternate goalkeeper on the Olympic Team?”
It was a job that would entail staying in Athens for the entire Olympics, on call in case one of the USA’s top two goalkeepers got injured.
“If I’m needed, count me in,” she said.
She would train everyday with the USA’s scouts, but on her off time, she could attend tons of Olympic events, eat wonderful food, hang out at the fabulous Nike hospitality building, and take her time to see one of the world’s greatest and most historic cities.
But first, Solo had scheduled a trip to her ancestral homeland – Italy. She spent two weeks traveling around Rome and Italy, before meeting the team on the spectacular Greek island of Crete to train for the Olympics.
Sweden to Italy to Crete - not a bad European experience. Said Solo: “I had the time of my life.”
After the Olympics, and in search of new challenges, Solo got an offer from Olympique Lyonnaise in the French First Division, which bolstered by the immense success of its men’s team, was putting some resources into the women’s side of the club.
France, however, proved to be a bit more of a challenge than Sweden, although having four of her U.S. teammates (Lorrie Fair, Danielle Slaton, Aly Wagner and Christie Welsh) on the team made it a bit easier.
“Lyon was a lot harder, and I didn’t get a chance to know the people as much because of the language barrier,” said Solo. “I admit I had a closed mind at the beginning, but as soon as I let myself open up, I enjoyed it more.”
Still, the soccer environment was difficult, and she had an especially tough time communicating with her back line. As the frustration mounted, she told herself that the challenge was making her better.
“The communication was hard and it wasn’t a two-way street,” she said. “I would try to learn their language and the words they would want me to say, but in a game atmosphere, I would resort back to English and they would get mad and yell at me instead of just learning a few English words. It was a tough situation, but the hurdles that I was forced to overcome helped stretch me as goalkeeper.”
Solo still hasn’t decided if she will return next year to Sweden or France or another European locale, but admits she is still sometimes amazed by her journey from the outpost of Richland (part of the Tri-Cities with Kennewick and Paco) in Eastern Washington.
“It has been a crazy ride the past few years, but I feel so fortunate that I was able to grow as a person and a goalkeeper while experiencing different cultures and meeting new people,” said Solo. “I know I still have so much to learn. I’ve had four games with the national team after not playing in two years, but I feel that my confidence and maturity is there. I got that with my Swedish and French teams so I am looking forward to gaining even more of that with the national team.”
At 23, she is still extremely young for a world-class international goalkeeper, and she has two years until the 2007 Women’s World Cup to show U.S. head coach Greg Ryan and his staff that she is a worthy successor to Scurry. She also knows that the competition for the spot will be fierce and that every game she gets will be valuable.
“We have some really talented goalkeepers in the United States and all of them are hungry to prove themselves,” said Solo. “I think one of the reasons why Briana Scurry was so good was because she played so many games. It is so important for a goalkeeper to play a lot of games. That’s when they are going to be able to direct a defense and learn about themselves.”
So while Solo didn’t learn much French, and even less Swedish, she did learn an important lesson during her travels: often you must leave your comfort zone to reach your comfort zone.