NEW YORK — It was a throwaway line during an hour-long panel discussion by six members of the trailblazing 1999 World Cup champion United States women’s soccer team, an offhand declaration made by Brandi Chastain that, given her scathing rebuke of global gender discrimination after the event seems trivial in comparison.
Given the fascinating argument it sets up, however, it’s too much fun not to explore.
“Briana, in my opinion, is the best goalie that the U.S. women’s national team has ever had,” Chastain said to applause during the event, which followed the announcement of the second annual Women’s International Champions Cup.
Chastain was talking about Briana Scurry, of course, the national soccer Hall of Famer who backstopped the Americans to two Olympic gold medals in addition to that World Cup win, which Chastain sealed with her famous penalty kick only after Scurry acrobatically parried a Chinese shot.
Chastain isn’t exactly impartial. As a defender, the Northern Californian native played directly in front of Scurry on two of those championship sides. Still, one could also interpret the remark as a veiled shot at Hope Solo, Scurry’s controversial and similarly accomplished successor.
For most of her 16-year U.S.career, Solo was widely considered the best goalkeeper in the world, and maybe of all time. Not long before her final cap, in 2016, she became the first keeper in history, men’s or women’s, to post 100 shutouts. Like Scurry, she won a World Cup and two Olympics. She amassed 202 appearances for the USWNT to Scurry’s 173.
The passing of the baton in the middle of last decade was handled gracefully by Scurry, who mostly served as Solo’s backup for her finals years with the national team. But the dynamic between the players changed forever during the 2007 World Cup. Solo started the first four games in China, conceding just two goals. But coach Greg Ryan benched her for the quarterfinals against Brazil in favor of the veteran Scurry, who’d beaten Brazil twice en route to the 2004 Olympic title. The strategy backfired spectacularly as the U.S. lost 4-0. In blasting Ryan’s decision afterward, Solo came across as disrespectful of Scurry.
“There's no doubt in my mind I would have made those saves,” Solo said. “And the fact of the matter is it's not 2004 anymore, it's 2007, and I think you have to live in the present. And you can't live by big names. You can't live in the past. It doesn't matter what somebody did in an Olympic gold medal game in the Olympics three years ago. Now is what matters, and that's what I think."
Her teammates voted to suspend here, and Solo has remained a lighting rod since. Solo’s troubles peaked when she was arrested for allegedly assaulting two family members in 2014, but the charges were eventually dismissed. Two years later, U.S. Soccer terminated her contract citing a history of relatively minor misdeeds, effectively ending her USWNT career.
Solo, who is suing the federation, has continued to be a vocal critic of the USSF in unofficial retirement; she’s stated that she still wants to play in this summer’s World Cup in France. Last year, she staged an unsuccessful campaign for U.S. Soccer president.
With both Scurry’s and Solo’s careers now in the rearview mirror, their legacies are beginning to come into sharper focus. The 20th anniversary of the paradigm-shifting 1999 World Cup title is looming this July, and there seems to be an increasing respect for the contributions the understated Scurry made during her playing days. They were both so dominant; at their best, both women were athletic monsters who could win games on their own. Any technical advantages Solo might have had must be weighed against Scurry’s undying professionalism. The truth is it’s nearly impossible to determine which one was better.
For the first time since 1991, the USWNT will head into a World Cup without Scurry or Solo on the roster. None of Adrianna Franch, Ashlyn Harris or Alyssa Naeher has experience as a No. 1 in a major tournament, and the competition seems wide open now that Naeher, the starter for most of 2018, appears to have lost the inside track in the run-up to the competition.
Asked Friday who would win the next World Cup, Scurry picked the U.S. to repeat, but with a significant caveat. “There’s one difference this World Cup team has for the USA that no other team previously has had, and that’s a question mark at the goalkeeper position.”
It’s a subject Scurry knows all about.
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