---- — Women’s soccer has an interesting history in this country. When Brandi Chastain clinched the World Cup title for the United States in 1999 with her game-winning shot in a penalty kick shootout against China it led to an upsurge of interest in the women’s game. It also led to a lot of questioning of Chastain’s motives when she pulled off her jersey leading many to wonder if Nike hadn’t paid her to advertise its sports bra. Whatever the truth, the lasting image of Chastain’s celebration was that women’s soccer as a popular spectator sport was here to stay.
The problem is that it didn’t happen. In the 13 years since Chastain’s victorious kick, three U.S. women’s professional soccer leagues have bit the dust. Apparently the American public loves the sport when our women compete on the international stage but could care less when it comes to domestic competition.
The men’s game hasn’t exactly caught fire either, but at least its domestic league has survived up until now.
As long as we’re on the subject of soccer and international popularity please allow me to digress for a moment and express my pet peeve about what otherwise is a beautiful sport. How can the world’s most popular competition, the World Cup, allow its championship match to be decided by penalty kicks in case of a tie? That would be like having the World Series decided by a home run competition, or the Super Bowl being determined by field goal attempts. It makes no sense.
The World Cup final should be decided by the “golden goal,” the phrase used for a winning goal in sudden-death overtime. If the sport is worried about the condition of the athletes for a match that goes on endlessly then simply allow unlimited substitution in overtime. If it ends up being the “survival of the fittest,” well, so be it. It would encourage teams to try to score and get rid of the idea of forcing penalty kicks in the hope that your opponent will screw up what should be a sure thing (i.e., making the shot) more than you do.
Back to reality, anyone who follows soccer knows that the U.S. women have been quite a force on the international stage since that 1999 shirt-stripping victory. However, the most famous incident is not one that happened on the field, but in an interview off it. A head-strong goalie by the name of Hope Solo blasted the American coach, Greg Ryan, for benching her for the 2007 World Cup semi-final against Brazil playing a hunch that the former no.1 goalkeeper, Briana Scurry, would do a better job.
The ploy backfired and the U.S. lost, 4-0. It’s understandable why Solo would be furious, but she also looked like a sore loser for criticizing her coach and throwing Scurry “under the bus.” She was kicked off the squad and there was a question whether her teammates would ever welcome her back. Solo did receive some sympathy from the public because she was refreshingly candid and, more importantly, right. She also put women’s soccer back in the headlines, which, for better or worse, never hurts.
As usually happens, once international competition ceased nobody paid any attention to women’s soccer. Not many people realized that Solo had gotten back on the national team by the time of the 2008 Olympics and helped lead it to a gold medal. She was in the news again in 2011 when the U.S. beat Brazil in an epic World Cup quarterfinal. She became recognized as the best goalkeeper in the world after the U.S. finished runner-up to Japan (on those stupid penalty kicks!) and then rebounded to beat Japan in the 2012 Olympic gold medal match.
The inner workings, camaraderie and petty rivalries of the U.S. women’s national team are illustrated by Solo in her new autobiography, “Solo: A Memoir of Hope.” She not only provides the entire story of what went on behind the scenes during the 2007 World Cup controversy, but what she went through to regain the team’s acceptance. It’s questionable whether she ever really became part of the “team” again. Solo was just too talented not to be a part of it (especially with a new coach!).
After reading Solo’s biography it’s not surprising that she could be so blunt and outspoken. She did not have an easy childhood. Her father was a shady character with constant legal issues and her mother was an alcoholic. She managed to survive and even thrive due to her athletic ability, good looks, and solid support from siblings, friends, and understanding grandparents. Solo came of age soccer-wise at the University of Washington and it led to her gaining a spot on the national team.
Solo’s memoir is impressive because she is brutally honest and doesn’t leave anything out. You learn what makes her tick and what it takes to play on the international level. Whether she is likable is another story. Her bluntness means that she isn’t the always tactful and can rub some people the wrong way.
Still, Hope Solo has an important story to tell. Whether you like her or not, you will appreciate her openness. Anyone who has an interest in women’s soccer will not be disappointed.
David Kent is the director of the Village Library of Cooperstown. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.