At what point is a superstar more trouble than she’s worth?
How many infractions of team rules does it take? How many run-ins with the law? And how many displays of poor sportsmanship and taste?
Before the collective heft of those actions outweighs the benefits of her contributions on the field?
Does Hope Solo the goalkeeper still justify having to deal with Hope Solo the person? The one who can’t keep her mouth shut after painful losses? The one whose criminal case for allegedly abusing her half-sister and her son has been reopened? The one who has had several other run-ins with the law? The one who has brought more negative attention to the United States women’s national team than every other player in its long and laureled history combined?
Those are the questions U.S. Soccer must have grappled with before deciding that Solo no longer justified the bother of having Solo on the team. On Wednesday, she was formally suspended from the women’s national team for six months, a year and a half after she was suspended for 30 days when her husband, former NFL player Jerramy Stevens, was arrested for driving a women’s national team van under the influence with Solo, reportedly also inebriated, in the passenger seat – an incident she failed to disclose to the federation before it was reported in the media.
This time around, Solo called the Swedish team that knocked the USA out of the quarterfinals of the Rio Olympics on penalties “cowards” for its conservative playing style, just after the loss cemented the worst American performance at a major tournament. She was heavily criticized for her comments, including by several teammates.
U.S. Soccer told several outlets that her suspension was the consequence of an accumulation of incidents, rather than a punishment meted out solely for the most recent one.
Solo, 35, had a strong game against France at the Olympics, conserving a narrow victory, but a terrible miscue and a missed punch against Colombia gave away a win in the USA’s final group stage match. And those flubs conspired to form an impression that Solo’s prime might be slipping away. She was named the best goalkeeper at both the 2011 and 2015 World Cups, but it’s conceivable that she has already played in her last big tournament.
After all, she wasn’t merely suspended – a punishment with a relatively modest scope, since the Americans will play just two games in that six-month span, an unusually low volume of matches by their standards. Her contract with the federation was also canceled. The established women’s national team players have a full-time deal with the federation that pays them a salary and benefits. Solo’s was terminated with three months’ severance, per FourFourTwo USA. It has been widely reported that her contract with the Seattle Reign of the National Women’s Soccer League remains in force, even though it is tied into her USSF deal.
This is the letter informing Hope Solo her contract with the USWNT has been terminated. pic.twitter.com/MtYwV9S6ed
— Liz Mullen (@SBJLizMullen) August 25, 2016
The U.S. women’s national team’s players’ association lawyer has said that he will file a grievance on Solo’s behalf. The lawyer also charged that Solo’s First Amendment rights are being violated, which is absurd, since her speech isn’t being impeded by a government – she’s merely been kicked off a team that had included her voluntarily.
This wasn’t an employee sent home for a while. If hers was a regular workplace, Solo would have been told to clear out her desk and escorted off the premise. There is no guarantee that she’ll return to the program when her suspension is up in February of next year.
Consider that the women’s national team has no big games until the Women’s World Cup rolls around again in 2019. By that time, Solo would be almost 38, old even for a goalkeeper. Old especially for a goalkeeper with a history of severe shoulder injuries. That gives head coach Jill Ellis plenty of time to get a replacement accustomed to the glare of the starting women’s national team job. In Alyssa Naeher and Ashlyn Harris, she has two capable alternatives. And while neither is Solo’s equal, the drop-off isn’t enormous, especially if there’s an eagerness to construct a Solo-less team.
This, however, brings up a troubling question. U.S. Soccer put up with Solo’s antics for the better part of a decade, since she harshly and publicly criticized then-head coach Greg Ryan for benching her in favor of the aging Brianna Scurry in the semifinals of the 2007 World Cup – a game lost 4-0 to Brazil. But no matter what she did, no matter how much negative publicity she cast on her team and employers, Solo remained firmly ensconced between the USA’s sticks. The federation even stood by her as her domestic violence case was initially heard – and then dismissed on a technicality, before it was reopened on a rare prosecutor’s appeal.
So long as she remained a difference-maker in goal, and a draw at the box office, U.S. Soccer was ready to forgive Solo for far more serious incidents than insulting opponents. It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that for a lot of that time, the gap in skill between Solo and any would-be replacement was vast.
Now that her best games might be in her wake, she’s been dumped. If this was all a pretext for U.S. Soccer to force an end to its relationship with a player who remains almost incomprehensibly popular among the team’s fan base – go to a game in person and you’ll be astonished at the cheers and shrieks Solo still gets from young girls – it was a clumsy way of going about it.
Because saying something unflattering about your opponents is hardly a novelty invented by Solo. In a statement, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said that her comments “were unacceptable and do not meet the standard of conduct we require from our national team players.”
“Beyond the athletic arena, and beyond the results, the Olympics celebrate and represent the ideals of fair play and respect,” Gulati continued. “We expect all of our representatives to honor those principles, with no exceptions. Taking into consideration the past incidents involving Hope, as well as the private conversations we’ve had requiring her to conduct herself in a manner befitting a U.S. national team member, U.S. Soccer determined this is the appropriate disciplinary action.”
It feels excessive for a player to be driven from the team for some harsh words, especially when male players, including some on the men’s national team, have gotten away with the equivalent or worse. And if this was an issue of persistent infringements, perhaps she should have been punished for each separate incident, when it was appropriate, rather than to let a larger case build. The optics of this cumulative sentence, with each prior conviction apparently turned into some unspoken probationary term while Solo remained useful, make it appear like the federation is pulling out a secret file of misdeeds to expel a problem child.
Solo was – is? – an all-time great goalkeeper. Arguably the greatest. Her play had been transcendent to the point where, for years, U.S. Soccer decided it would rather twist itself into uncomfortable postures than do without her. Her play was unimpeachable and her federation never pursued charges.
It wasn’t under any obligation to put her on the national team then. Just as it isn’t now. Is Solo worth the trouble? Perhaps not anymore. Probably not, in fact. Maybe she never was. There are stars and goalkeepers aplenty in the player pool. But if U.S. Soccer no longer wanted her on the team, all it had to do was no longer put her on the team.
If this really is the end for Solo’s national team career, the charade of a loudly announced suspension – via a press release and over the women’s national team’s Twitter account – feels unnecessary and almost malicious.
If it isn’t the end, the size of the punishment scarcely fits the crime.