Outspoken Hope Solo playing for keeps
Hope Solo is tired.
Less than a week after she made the most important save in the history of the U.S. women’s national soccer team to lead Team USA to a gold medal in London, Solo and I are seated together in a conference room on the ninth floor of a New York City office building.
She’s got Jimmy Fallon’s TV show later in the evening, and there’s a full schedule of appearances, signings and corporate obligations up ahead. It has been nonstop for Solo since she has returned from London, and there’s no real end to the madness in sight.
“I’m barely awake right now,” she says after taking a sip from a bottle of water. “It’s been a whirlwind. I try to live my life one day at a time, and if I look too far in advance, I get really stressed.”
She’s tired. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally.
She’s also tired of former U.S. national star-turned-TV talking head Brandi Chastain running her mouth. She’s tired of former national coach Greg Ryan speaking about her to the media. She’s tired of the authorities at US Soccer telling her when and with whom she can do interviews.
With her memoir, "Solo: A Memoir of Hope," coming out this week, the greatest female goalkeeper to ever suit up for Team USA is as honest and as open as she has ever been. And that’s saying a lot.
“It’s all in the book,” she says with a smile.
“The HarperCollins people were starting to get annoyed with me. I’d have all sorts of edits, things I wanted added in or taken out. I put all of my heart and soul into this book. It’s me. It’s raw. It wouldn’t be fair to my fans or to myself if I wasn’t absolutely honest with everything in those pages and it’s all in there.”
She isn’t lying. In vivid detail, the book takes readers through Solo’s tumultuous 2007 World Cup, the one in which, just weeks after her father passed away, she became a team pariah for speaking out against Ryan’s surprising decision to bench her prior to Team USA’s semifinal match versus Brazil.
After telling an ESPN reporter that there was “no doubt” she would have made the saves that her replacement — 36-year-old Brianna Scurry — could not, her Team USA teammates turned on her.
Solo writes of a memorable meeting with several of Team USA’s veteran leaders in a cramped hotel room in China after they caught wind of her comments:
“Kate Markgraf turned on me. ‘I can’t even f—king look at you,’ she said. ‘Who the f—k do you think you are? I can’t even be in the same room as you.’ She walked out and slammed the door behind her. Wow, I thought, that seems overly dramatic.”
The most riveting scene of the book, however, is the moment in which Ryan reveals his decision to bench the grieving Solo prior to the game. Solo writes:
"Greg didn’t seem to like my tone. I wasn’t crying, I wasn’t folding. I wasn’t making it easy. Instead, I was fighting back with words and logic, keeping my emotions tacked down. So he tried to provoke me, just as he had on the field all summer … We were both silent. I had nothing left to say so I stood up to leave. Greg leaned over and pushed me back down on the couch. Hard. ‘You f—king leave when I say you can leave,’ he said. I was stunned that he had touched me."
On Wednesday morning, Ryan, now the coach of Michigan’s women’s soccer team, denied any allegations of a physical altercation.
"This allegation is completely false," Ryan told USA Today. "I did not shove or push Hope as I've been accused in her book. I would have been terminated immediately by USA Soccer had this allegation been true. I have openly discussed the contents of the meeting and this is the first time that this accusation has been brought to light.”
Seated face to face, I ask Solo what really happened in that hotel room on that day in 2007. She explains, “It was one of the most intense interactions I’ve ever had with a coach. I can’t believe the intensity. You could just feel it — the tension. He was benching me. He needed to give me reasons why. I deserved an answer. I wanted to make sure that he looked me in the eyes and he could tell me why, because at the end of the day, he’d have to face it. It was intense. It wasn’t easy.”
She takes a moment.
“He offered probably 20 different reasons. To this day, I’m not really sure why I was benched. You have to justify your actions, and he did everything he could to justify his decision that everyone knows wasn’t the right decision.”
But was there a physical altercation? Did Greg Ryan place a hand on Hope Solo in that room that afternoon?
“It was intense."
It’s all she’ll say.
The day after the semifinal 4-0 loss to Brazil, Ryan told Solo that she was benched because she had broken team rules, that on the night before the quarterfinal, she missed curfew and a team dinner. Ryan implied that she was out partying.
I ask Solo about the accusation and she remains angered by the suggestion, saying, “In truth, 2007 was the hardest year of my life. I lost my best friend. I lost my father. It was my first major tournament, and I was mourning the loss of my father that entire tournament. Every free moment I had, I spent with my grandma, my brother, and my family to get that strength that I needed and to mourn with them. So when I heard stories about me going out and partying before that game — nah, my heart would never allow for that.”
Looking back on the 2007 experience now, mere days after winning gold in London and being an Olympic hero, Solo’s still shaken up by the way her first major tournament went five years ago.
“I knew that along the way, I was right,'' she says. "I knew that if I could just stay strong and put one foot in front of the other, day in and day out, it will pass. But trying to get through it, it was a nightmare. It was painful. And it hurt. I remember being on the bathroom floor and I felt the pain and the grief coming out of me physically. My body was in pain. Then, something just finally snapped and I was like, you know what, nobody’s going to steal my joy. I am proud of who I am and nobody’s going to steal that.”
Solo’s life story is one of strength, courage and triumph. It’s also one of conviction. It’s that conviction that makes her one of the most controversial and outspoken athletes in sports today.
After Chastain was critical of Team USA’s defense during an early-round match in London, Solo took to Twitter to share her thoughts on the analysis. She tweeted that Chastain should "lay off commentating about defending" and goalkeeping "until you get more educated" and "the game has changed from a decade ago."
She stands behind those comments today.
“The game has changed so much and we’re out here doing everything that we can to bring longevity to the sport and increase the fan base,” she says. “And we’re doing amazing things. But we don’t really get the credit for it.”
She stops for a second, and then decides to shift gears with her response, “You know, it’s not about that. The game has improved so much. It’s a beautiful game now. I don’t believe it used to be that way. … I just don’t think that because [Chastain] has a name, it makes her a great soccer mind. It’s no disrespect, I just don’t think she’s a great analyst.”
There’s been no contact between Solo and Chastain since the Twitter dustup three weeks ago in London.
“I haven’t spoken to her since, no,” she says rather casually. “I have no desire; no need to speak [to her].”
It’s not out of character for Solo to speak her mind. She’s proud of the fact that she has always spoken her mind. Whether it’s about her partner on “Dancing with the Stars” or an ex-player-turned-analyst whose critiques she doesn’t respect or value, she’s going to be herself.
She’s going to be Hope Solo.
“Female athletes are supposed to be toned down," she says. "You’re always supposed to talk about the team and never stand out. I think I became one of the first female athletes to embrace who I am entirely and stand out. I think I opened doors and opportunities for a lot of women.”
As we finish our allotted time together, I walk with Solo to the elevators. Unlike most other athletes of her stature, she doesn’t have the team of 11 handlers. There’s one publicity person and a manager.
“That was fun,” she says to me with a smile.
“Now, I need a nap.”
I can only imagine.