The first time I spoke to Hope Solo I pissed her off. We stood on a baking hot sidewalk around the corner from Times Square last summer, in front of some hotel or other, where the U.S. women’s national team would be staying for a few days as it embarked on a media blitz following a runner-up 2011 Women’s World Cup campaign.
That World Cup had, in my view, made it apparent that several budding powers – like Japan and France – were now matching the U.S. players technically, if not already ahead of them. How, then, would the U.S. stay ahead of the game, I wondered?
“That’s a really unfair question,” snapped Solo.
“We just made the final of a World Cup,” she said.
Granted, my timing was inelegant. The women were deservedly returning to a rabid reception, having captured the national imagination with a series of jaw-dropping comebacks, and were fresh off the plane. But it said something about her too. Something she’s revealed again and again.
Solo can be deleteriously blunt. Even hot-headed. When she was benched ahead of the semifinals of the 2007 World Cup in favor of the 36-year old Brianna Scurry, who was hugely experienced but out of match shape, she blew a lid after the U.S. lost to Brazil 4-0.
“It was the wrong decision, and I think anybody that knows anything about the game knows that,” she said after the game. “You have to live in the present. And you can’t live by big names.” Ironically, she would go on to become the biggest name in the women’s game herself, never shying away from the spotlight, going on Dancing with the Stars. It took some time before Solo’s relationship with her team was mended. She developed a reputation for being feisty, but that only seemed to make her more attractive to her many admirers.
In her upcoming autobiography – Solo: a memoir of Hope – she divulges on her father, the late Jeffrey Solo. He was a serial swindler, whose last name may or may not have actually been Solo. Jeffrey started several families at once and conned the mothers of his children and others out of their money. What emerges from these soul-bearing pages is a sympathetic character, a little girl who adored an erratic father drifting in and out of her life unannounced, shaking her emotions like a rattle. That she consequently grew into a guarded woman who is quick to protect herself and hers and go on the offensive with sharply-worded tirades seems a plausible explanation.
On Saturday, she took another public swipe. At jersey-twirling women’s team alumna Brandi Chastain, who had leveled a measured criticism at defender Rachel Buehler and her inability to play the ball out of the back under pressure during NBC’s broadcast of the U.S.’s 3-0 Olympics win over Colombia.
“Its [sic] 2 bad we cant [sic] have commentators who better represents [sic] the team&knows [sic] more about the game @brandichastain!” Solo tweeted. “Lay off commentating about defending and gking [sic] until you get more educated @brandichastain the game has changed from a decade ago.” Again, she went to her go-to barb of questioning her foe’s soccer intellect.
On Monday, Solo stood by her statements in an incoherent half-evasion of the question, saying it was "only her opinion" but managed to add "I think analysts and commentators should bring energy and excitement and passion for the game, and a lot of knowledge, and I think it's important to help build the game, and I don't think Brandi has that." Never mind that Chastain has a third more caps than Solo, not to mention two more World Cups and one more Olympic gold medal.
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Solo’s criticism of Chastain was far out of line. Chastain, for one, is an able analyst who was appropriately critical of the team she covers. In accusing her of failing to “represent the team” Solo displayed her own miseducation about an analyst’s role. Chastain isn’t on the team anymore. She doesn’t “represent” it. Like many athletes and fans, Solo is under the impression that it’s the media’s job to promote the team and the game. It is not. It’s to scrutinize and inform impartially. If you don’t believe me, consult the Constitution under ‘Fourth Estate’.
Hope Solo is a big character, and those are crucial to any sport’s visibility. But flying off the handle as she is wont to do on occasion is a distraction to her, her team and, if you insist on calling it that, her burgeoning brand.
If the women’s team is being criticized, that only shows it’s being taken seriously, an indicator that its realities don’t need sugar-coating in order to shield an embryonic following. Rather, it’s misguided accusations like those Solo flung at Chastain that are a blight on the women’s game and in danger of putting people off.