Questionable World Cup calls
As Hope Solo battled to keep her voice steady and eyes dry, and allowed her ill-feeling toward U.S. women's soccer coach Greg Ryan to erupt on television, she probably had no idea that her comments would actually shield the target of her fury from the inquisition he deserves.
Solo's impassioned rant against Ryan's decision to replace her at goalkeeper with Briana Scurry for the USA's 4-0 World Cup semifinal defeat to Brazil on Thursday was emotional and had merit, but it did her no favors.
Because now, as the post-mortem of the second consecutive U.S. failure to reach a World Cup final begins, there is just as much scrutiny and analysis of Solo's outburst as there is of Ryan's bizarre lineup change.
All the talk Thursday was about Solo – about how her remarks claiming she would have performed better than Scurry (the recalled but off-the-pace 2004 Olympic gold medalist) would affect her future position in the team, and about whether she should have sounded off behind closed doors rather than in front of the world's media.
If Solo had contained her feelings (and that would've been wise considering the U.S. still has something to play for in Sunday's third-place game), then the heat would have been firmly on Ryan, and rightly so. The coach's official reason for bringing back the older Scurry and dumping the incumbent Solo after 300 minutes without conceding a goal was that the veteran's reflexes and speed would be better suited against Brazil's all-action game.
That assessment looked foolish at Hangzhou Dragon Stadium in China.
Leslie Osborne's own goal set the tone for a miserable USA performance. It could have been avoided if Scurry had shown better command of her area and either come and collected the low corner kick herself or bellowed clear instruction for Osborne to leave the ball alone. Scurry was at varying degrees of fault for the other three goals, getting touches on two strikes from Brazilian star Marta but failing to keep them out.
Yet the real fault lies with Ryan, whose bone-headed selection must call his future as U.S. coach into doubt. Bone-headed not because there is a huge difference in quality between his two top goalkeepers – there isn't – but because he completely neglected to consider the effect his ploy would have on the team.
Such a left-field decision on the eve of a massive game causes unwanted confusion at a time when players need stability and calmness.
Ryan's move smacked of unfairness – and of panic. It reeked more of a sense of personal insecurity, rather than a genuine lack of faith in a goalkeeper who had looked confident and steady after a shaky beginning in the Americans' tournament-opening 2-2 draw with North Korea.
Of course, there is no guarantee that the result against Brazil would have been vastly different if Solo had kept her place. Then again, in recent games she gave no hint of the uncertainty and sluggishness that Scurry displayed. Once the first two goals had gone in, a U.S. comeback was unlikely. Shannon Boxx's unjustified sending off just before the break made it impossible.
At this pivotal time for the women's game in North America, this defeat and the controversy surrounding it doesn't bode well for the future.
The dream scenario heading into the re-forming of a national women's professional league in 2009 would have been a World Cup victory this year and Olympic success in Beijing in August. While Olympic gold is still achievable, the U.S. will no longer be the favorite going into the Summer Games. The world has not only caught up to the Americans, but there are also teams like Brazil and Germany capable of streaking ahead of them.
Ryan has taken a team that was the best – and knew it was the best – and allowed doubt to creep in. The group of talent he has at his disposal deserves better than to be heading home embarrassed after a resounding destruction at the hands of an opponent the Americans had repeatedly dominated in the past.
As the depth of international women's soccer improves, unnecessary mistakes such as Ryan's will be punished with greater severity than in previous years. That's because, in future tournaments, the USA's status as one of the world's best will come under greater pressure from the chasing pack.
If Ryan cannot hold his nerve when the going gets tough, maybe it is time he got going.