Hope Solo’s first shutout did not come like many that would follow under bright stadium lights in front of a massive, screaming and adoring crowd. It came more than 16 years ago during an 8-0 win at a closed-door international - the U.S. played those back then - against Iceland in Davidson, North Carolina. There was only a smattering of people in the stands.
It was a modest debut for what would grow into a spectacular career, perhaps the best for an international goalkeeper. And against South Africa on July 9 at Soldier Field in Chicago, Solo has a chance to achieve a milestone never before reached when she goes for her 100th shutout.
Should she hit the century mark in the next match, the shutout would come in her 197th cap, giving her a clean sheet in just under every second match she has played for the USA. It’s a remarkable achievement, especially considering the amount of important matches she has played in World Cups, Olympics, and qualifying for those tournaments. And despite the increasing competitiveness of the women’s game internationally, the wins and shutouts have continued to accrue at the same rate.
She’s earned shutouts on dusty fields on the southern coast of Portugal, in ultra-modern stadiums built for a World Cup in South Korea, in massive multi-purpose stadiums in China, in the soccer-specific stadiums of the USA and in some of Europe’s green cathedrals.
Playing behind a strong U.S. team for her entire career, Solo has had her share of matches in which she was not called upon to make many saves, but during her tenure there has been a much more common scenario. These are matches that feature several dangerous moments, ones that happen in a flash, where she has stepped up to keep an opponent off the board with a brilliant save or a brave punch in goal area traffic, bringing crowds to their feet, impacting games tremendously, and yes, enabling her to earn a bushels of shutouts.
“She has the ability to remain totally focused for 90 minutes, whether it’s making saves in the 20th, 45th or the 92nd minutes,” said U.S. goalkeeper coach Graeme Abel. “That focus and efficiency in her performances allows her to remain in control at all times, and it’s a huge positive for any team to have a player like that in goal.”
Solo’s athleticism has always been world class, and when you add her in prodigious kicking game, her physical abilities are perhaps peerless to any goalkeeper who has ever represented her country. But it is her mental game and her tremendous competitive focus that has pushed her into the realm of the best-ever at her position.
Her mentality and ability to lock in and focus on the job at hand while directing the defense and owning her penalty box are legendary.
They say you practice like you play, and anyone who has ever played with and against Solo in practice knows of her tremendous training ethic.
“Hope’s attention to detail both on and off the training field and her drive for perfection while evaluating video is a key factor in transferring performances from practice to match days,” said Abel. “Those qualities are main reasons that she’s had so much longevity in a position that continually evolves.”
Another impressive stat is where she has earned those shutouts, with more coming in difficult environments abroad (53) than on U.S. soil (46). Of her 99 shutouts, almost a third have come in FIFA or CONCACAF tournaments, earning 16 in World Cup and Olympic play, and another 15 in World Cup or Olympic Qualifying.
Her shutouts have come against 28 different countries, with 10 each against CONCACAF rivals Canada and Mexico. A total of 37 of her shutouts have come against European teams and 52 against the likes of world powers like Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, England, France, Japan, Nigeria, Norway and Sweden.
In 2016, Solo has earned nine shutouts in her 10 wins so far, including seven in a row, tying her own record for most consecutive games played with clean sheets (she had seven in a row back in 2005). One must think, considering the way the U.S. team is playing so far this year, she has a good shot to break her personal record of 13 shutouts in a calendar year, set in another Olympic year in 2008.
Of course, Solo and the U.S. team famously earned five consecutive shutouts in the 2015 Women’s World Cup, allowing a goal against Australia in the first match and two to Japan in the World Cup Final, but in between the USA completely smothered opposing attacks.
It was the match against Australia where Solo made two other-worldly saves, and several more that would qualify as tremendous if it wasn’t for her two stops in the first half that perhaps changed the course of the World Cup.
In just the fifth minute of the match with the scored tied 0-0, Australian attacker Emily van Egmond unleashed a blast from just 16 yards out that was headed into the upper right corner before Solo threw her body to her left and with a brilliant reaction save, pushed the ball off the crossbar with both hands.
That set the stage for Megan Rapinoe to put the USA up 1-0 in the 12th minute. Just a minute later, Solo amazingly topped the first save with another lighting reaction to push away Sam Kerr's point-blank volley with her left hand.
But perhaps one of her most important “saves” of the World Cup came when she didn’t even touch the ball.
In the 59th minute of a tight Women’s World Cup semifinal match against Germany, Julie Johnston was whistled for a penalty kick for pulling down massive striker Alexandra Popp. Up stepped Celia Sasic, one of the best penalty kick takers in the world. Solo played the mental game with Sasic and won it, making her wait about three minutes before the kick was taken. The German star missed just wide left to keep the score at 0-0.
No German player — man or woman — had ever missed a penalty kick in a World Cup. That miss set the stage for Carli Lloyd’s heroics when she converted a penalty kick in the 70th minute, and for a Kelley O’Hara goal that finished off the game near the end to send the USA back to the World Cup Final.
It was just another example of how Solo impacts games, which she does with her voice, her presence and her soccer savvy, helping her defense defuse chances before they come to fruition. These are all factors that have been keys to her earning so many shutouts as well.
Those were just a few moments of many, albeit under the brightest of lights, that spotlight the impact Solo has on matches. Whether she gets the shutout or not (and her 99 so far shows that she often does), what has been abundantly clear is that whenever she’s in goal, it’s highly likely the U.S. will get the win.
“To be able to set records and reach milestones such as these at any level is a great achievement,” added Abel. “But to do it on the world’s stage is just a phenomenal feat.”