A FI­NAL GOAL

Hope Solo sets aside all of the tu­mult to fo­cus on what could crown a great ca­reer: a World Cup ti­tle

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - BY KEVIN BAX­TER

Hope Solo heaved a heavy sigh then flashed a smile that looked as in­sin­cere as it did un­com­fort­able.

Th­ese were sup­posed to be the best of times for Solo, who will en­ter the third and per­haps fi­nal World Cup of her stel­lar ca­reer. The tour­na­ment opens Satur­day, and the U.S. plays its opener June 8 against Australia.

If her team ad­vances to the fi­nal in Van­cou­ver — 140 miles from her Seat­tle-area home — Solo will ar­rive there own­ing ev­ery sig­nif­i­cant goal­keep­ing record in U.S. na­tional team his­tory.

In re­cent ap­pear­ances with the U.S. team, though, no one wants to ask her about that. In­stead they want to talk about her ar­rest on sus­pi­cion of do­mes­tic as­sault last sum­mer, though the charges were dropped. Or her month­long sus- pen­sion from the U.S. team last win­ter af­ter her hus­band, for­mer NFL player Jer­ramy Stevens, was stopped for DUI while be­hind the wheel of a U.S. Soc­cer van, with Solo at his side.

“It’s no sur­prise to any­body that it’s been a re­ally tough year,” Solo says through the plas­tic smile. “But with that be­ing said, I feel like I’m in the best place of my life. I’m just happy there’s been a turn­around.

“I’ve worked to make fur­ther turn­arounds for the World Cup.”

That plan ap­pears to be work­ing. Since re­turn­ing to the team in Fe­bru­ary, Solo has played as well as at any time in her ca­reer, post­ing five con­sec­u­tive shutouts and giv­ing up just two goals in eight games. And U.S. Coach Jill El­lis be­lieves Solo’s sus­pen­sion and her stand­out play are linked.

“My per­spec­tive is some­times in life paus­ing and re­flect­ing is a good thing,” El­lis said. “Every­body, I think, has ex­pe­ri­ences in their life where you some­times have to sort of take stock of where you are.

“I’m just re­ally pleased with where she is.”

But then, soc­cer has never been the prob­lem for Solo. The 33-year-old’s dis­ci­plined play on the field is a sharp con­trast to her undis­ci­plined what-was-she-think­ing be­hav­ior off it.

Solo was first suspended from the U.S. team — and os­tra­cized by her team­mates — in 2007, af­ter lash­ing out against her bench­ing dur­ing a World Cup semi­fi­nal.

In the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, she was warned but not sanc­tioned af­ter testing pos­i­tive for the banned sub­stance can­renone. And two matches into those Lon­don Games she was called be­fore the team’s coaches and cap­tains again to ex­plain her Twit­ter rant against NBC an­a­lyst Brandi Chas­tain.

Con­tro­versy, it seems, has never ven­tured far away. She couldn’t even es­cape it the day be­fore her mar­riage in the fall of 2012, when Stevens was jailed but not charged on sus­pi­cion of at­tack­ing his fi­ancee. Then last June, Solo was ar­rested on sus­pi­cion of the same of­fense — fourth-de­gree do­mes­tic as­sault — af­ter an al­ter­ca­tion with her half-sis­ter and a teenage nephew at a party.

A judge dis­missed the charges in Jan­uary, when the two rel­a­tives failed to ap­pear for in­ter­views. (The Kirk­land, Wash., pros­e­cu­tor’s of­fice is chal­leng­ing that de­ci­sion and legal briefs on the ap­peal are sched­uled to be filed this sum­mer.)

For Solo, soc­cer has been her refuge — as it has been through­out a life that ac­tu­ally be­gan in jail. Solo wrote in her 2012 mem­oir that she was con­ceived dur­ing a con­ju­gal visit at a state pri­son, where her fa­ther was serv­ing time for em­bez­zle­ment.

Her fa­ther, a Viet­nam vet­eran who went by three names, left home when his 7-year-old daugh­ter first be­gan dreaming of the World Cup. He even­tu­ally wound up home­less on the streets of Seat­tle, where he was a per­son of in­ter­est — but later cleared — in a mur­der case.

Her mother, Solo wrote, drank too much.

Even her team­mates weren’t al­ways de­pend­able, some­times turn­ing their backs — as in 2007, when play­ers banned her from team meals and filed off an el­e­va­tor af­ter Solo got on.

But since Solo re­turned from her lat­est sus­pen­sion — and the coun­sel­ing and in­tro­spec­tion that went with it — she’s been a dif­fer­ent per­son and player, some of those same team­mates say. More ma­ture. More fo­cused. More determined.

“She has so much clar­ity right now,” El­lis said. “This is as sharp as I’ve seen Hope.”

Mid­fielder Shan­non Boxx, a vet­eran of that 2007 team, said: “She’s the best goal­keeper in the world. And we need her. That’s what we fo­cus on. We fo­cus on her as a player. And our team­mate. “And she’s been great.” Yet Solo’s le­gacy may ul­ti­mately hinge on what hap­pens next.

If she plays well and adds a World Cup ti­tle to her two Olympic gold medals, she’ll be re­mem­bered as the most­dec­o­rated goal­keeper in women’s soc­cer his­tory.

Any­thing less and Solo, who turns 34 in July, could begin con­tem­plat­ing re­tire­ment fol­low­ing a ca­reer marked as much by short­com­ings as by suc­cess.

But this isn’t about re­demp­tion, says Solo, who is determined to look for­ward, not back.

“I’m go­ing af­ter a World Cup. All of us are,” she said. “We shouldn’t be on this team if we’re not go­ing af­ter a World Cup. I could re­tire to­day with­out a World Cup and be proud and happy with ev­ery­thing I’ve done for the game.

“Will I be sat­is­fied? Ab­so­lutely not. Be­cause it’s been my dream, as a lit­tle girl, to win a World Cup. And I hope I don’t re­tire with­out one.”

‘I’m go­ing af­ter a World Cup. . . . It’s been my dream, as a lit­tle girl, to win a World Cup. And I hope I don’t re­tire with­out one.’

— HOPE SOLO,

U.S. goal­keeper

Buda Men­des Getty Images

HOPE SOLO, the U.S.’ goal­keeper, in ac­tion against the Chi­nese team in a De­cem­ber match in Brazil. Since re­turn­ing to the team in Fe­bru­ary af­ter a month­long sus­pen­sion, she has been play­ing in top form.

Rick Bowmer As­so­ci­ated Press

U.S. GOAL­KEEPER Hope Solo dives for a ball at a Septem­ber prac­tice. “Every­body, I think, has ex­pe­ri­ences in their life where you some­times have to sort of take stock of where you are,” says U.S. Coach Jill El­lis.

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