There were a lot of heroes for the American team in these Games. Alex Morgan, late of the Western New York Flash, had the game-winner in the semifinals. Rochester’s Abby Wambach has been her typically solid self. Carli Lloyd, who wasn’t even starting when the Games began, had two goals in Thursday’s championship game – what they might one day look back on as the Lloyd’s of London final.
But in the end, it was the controversial goalie, Hope Solo, who saved the day for the U.S. women, who got sweet revenge for last summer’s World Cup finals loss with a thrilling 2-1 victory over Japan before 80,000 fans at Wembley Stadium. The American women won their third straight gold medal, and their fourth in the last five Olympics.
They can thank Solo, who inspires nothing if not drama. It’s always something with the Richland, Wash., native. She says what’s on her mind, regardless of how it might play with the public or her teammates.
Before the 2007 World Cup semifinal, she was benched in favor of Brianna Scurry. After the U.S. lost to Brazil, 4-0, Solo ripped into her coach for the decision. Solo was in goal for the U.S. when it won gold in Beijing.
Before these Games, Solo admitted she had gone on the “Today” show drunk after those Olympics. She went on “Dancing With The Stars” in a pair of grungy boots and got booed by the crowd. She appeared nude in ESPN’s 2011 “Body Issue.” She was warned by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency before the Games when she tested for a banned substance – which she explained had been a prescribed premenstrual medication.
Early in the Games here, Solo got into a Twitter battle with former U.S. star Brandi Chastain, ripping Chastain for questioning the Americans’ defense. The U.S. team found itself bombarded with questions about Solo when they were telling the world how unified and selfless they were as a group.
Well, Solo backed it up in the end. She’s one of those big athletic personalities who craves attention but shows up when the games are biggest. In the biggest game of the year, Solo was fabulous. On a night when the U.S. defense made some glaring mistakes, their goalie was there to bail them out.
Solo had four saves. But two were absolutely stunning stops, a leaping deflection in the early going and a lunging stop on Asuna Tanaka in the 83rd minute after captain and four-time Olympian Christie Rampone committed a ghastly giveaway near her own goal, giving Japan a two on one. Considering what was at stake, it might have been the greatest save in the history of women’s soccer.
“At the time, it wasn’t my best save,” said Solo, who turned 31 a week ago. “But when you look at it being in the final against Japan in the final minutes, I guess it was a big save. But that’s what I train for. A little bit routine. It’s a bigger deal now, let’s put it that way.”
You could say that. If the ’08 gold medal got her on the “Today” show, this performance could send her on a full tour of the talk show circuit – even if she has to take a Breathalyzer beforehand.
“Japan is so dangerous when they get their numbers forward and start connecting with their short passes,” said Wambach, who missed the ’08 Games with a broken leg. “They got in the left side and she (Tanaka) shot for the far post and Hope was there. I was fired up, because as a forward, you don’t have much control in that situation. You’re hoping for the best. In that moment, Hope came up huge.”
“I knew I had to find a way to make the save,” Solo said. “I was pretty confident in my angle. All I could think about was, ‘All right, I’ll make the save if she can’t pass the ball, if my defender on the back post marks her player.’ Sure enough, Becky (Sauerbrunn) was there. She just told me in the locker room, ‘I was forcing her to make the shot, because I knew you would make the save.’ We’ve practiced that, so it turned out great.”
Yes, but only after the Japanese women gave them a terrific scare. They trailed, 2-0, after Lloyd’s second goal in the 54th minute. But what is it the hockey people say about the 2-0 lead being the most dangerous? Yuki Ogimi scored nine minutes later, and the U.S. hung on from there. When Rampone, a four-time Olympian and the last link to the Mia Hamm teams, slipped up, Solo was there.
“She does it all the time,” said midfielder Megan Rapino. “She’s brilliant. She does do a lot of talking, but that’s her personality. That’s who she is. We’ve accepted that, and we’re glad to have her in our goal.”
“She’s the best goalkeeper ever,” Lloyd said, “on the whole planet. Huge saves, that what she does. She comes up big in big moments. She’s just unbelievable.”
Her teammates and the people who run USA soccer would prefer she not rush headlong into controversy. But then, Solo wouldn’t be the same. Think of her last name. Solo. Individual. Solitary. She stands alone. Isn’t that what goalies do? They’re the last line of defense, often the player who separates a team from triumph and despair.
Many of them perform on the edge. It comes with the job. Look at Dominik Hasek, the eccentric genius. Or Patrick Roy, a brash talker who was always there with the Stanley Cup on the line. If you’re on their team, you shrug, smile and accept that the quirky personality is a necessary part of the package, an artery of their genius.
“I don’t care how I’m perceived,” Solo said. “I am who I am. I’m here to win. It’s not always pretty. I don’t know when I’m going to be asked to step up. Whether it’s the first or last game, who knows?”
But don’t you think the big moment brings out the best in you? I asked.
“I think I tend to play well under pressure,” she said, “but a lot of great players do.”
So yes, she considers herself great. Solo said she loved the crowd at Wembley, the largest she ever played before. She said she didn’t try to block them out. She fed off their energy. She was at one with the people, the spotlight, the world.
On this night, Solo stood alone. And when her team needed it most, the woman stood on her head.