Sunday, September 30, 2007
U.S. makes Solo the scapegoat for its failure
Even before the U.S. team took the field against Norway in the third-place game, which the Americans would win 4-1, Hope Solo had lost.
Solo wasn't even present at the stadium, banished as a "distraction" by her coach and at least some of her teammates.
After her candid comments against coach Greg Ryan's decision to bench her for the semifinal match versus Brazil, Solo directed a spotlight on herself that allowed the catalyst of the entire event, Greg Ryan, to escape from the glare.
It was Ryan who, after the U.S. team had looked mostly uninspired in the attack all tournament long, decided to shake things up on defense.
Yet after Solo's critical statements, which were construed by many as an attack on a teammate, it was Solo who became persona non grata.
Citing the disappointment and confusion of team members, Ryan and two key veterans, Kristine Lilly and Abby Wambach, spoke out against Solo's comments when announcing that the goalkeeper would be banned from even supporting her teammates from the bench.
The fact that the attention switched so completely to Solo was in itself a surprise, given that she was essentially a powerless player with an opinion and Ryan was the person who made one of the most curious calls in sporting history.
What was more surprising was how completely Solo's fate was sealed after the match.
All around the world, people who knew little of the sport of soccer, even less about the women's game, and nothing about the young goalkeeper who had led the U.S. team to a record unbeaten streak, woke up to news reports of her comments and surmised that another spoiled athlete was on the loose.
Although Solo never disparaged Scurry's specific performance against Brazil, headlines trumpeted that she had belittled, ripped and insulted her teammate.
Many in the media ran with that angle because it was so juicy, even though it required a certain amount of conjecture from her actual statements. Few ever bothered to mention that Solo had given up a professional career abroad to join the U.S. residency program and focus on major tournaments like the World Cup.
The years of sacrifice were brushed away when Ryan not only made the original switch, but reacted ominously after Solo's remarks. He pointed out the depth of the goalkeeper pool in the U.S., implying that Solo could be dropped from the team completely with little impact to the squad. Finally, Ryan named Scurry the starter for the match versus Norway and announced Solo's ban.
Whatever the result gained by the U.S. against Norway, Solo was the true loser.
If the U.S. had lost, many would blame Solo for upsetting team chemistry at such a crucial juncture. Overlooked in that particular witch-hunt would be the difficult position in which Ryan placed Solo and Scurry, and actually, the entire U.S. roster. His unusual choice was probably more upsetting to the squad than anything Solo could say, but it wasn't as telegenic.
If the U.S. won the third-place game, as it eventually did, the match could stand as a prime example of how dispensable Solo was. Starting Scurry again for the victory gave Ryan a chance to prove his preference for her was valid.
Meanwhile, the heat that had been turned on Ryan was deflected. His disruptive choice and the effect of it, was bypassed completely in the rush to judge Solo. With so much of the debate focused on what Solo said and whether she should have said it, the performance of the U.S. was given only a cursory once-over. Once public opinion was divided as to Solo's responsibilities as a teammate, Ryan's obligations as coach took a backseat.
Parsing Solo's comments and defending or denouncing them ultimately has little effect on anyone other than her. However, a diversion was created that kept people arguing that issue instead of analyzing the more important one of how the U.S. team derailed and who should take the blame.
No country has invested as much in women's soccer as has the U.S. No country has more young female players participating in the game. If the raw talent to win world championships is there, then the development of that potential, at some level, is at fault when the U.S. keeps coming up short.
Perhaps residency just doesn't provide the competitive environment that leagues abroad do.
Or perhaps the leadership of the U.S. women's team led the players astray by no longer emphasizing technical play and precision passing. Those are hallmarks of a team like Germany, which did make the final. The U.S. certainly didn't teach players the creativity and magical touch of the Brazilians. Anyone who saw the teams play against each other could be sure of that.
With the new women's league delayed until 2009, the choices the U.S. federation makes now are what will determine the future for the Olympics next year. President Sunil Gulati must sift through the impact of Solo's words versus Ryan's actions.
In some ways, one hopes that Gulati took a look at the match after the U.S. dispatched Norway. In goal for Germany was Nadine Angerer, a younger goalkeeper who had taken over for the legendary Silke Rottenberg. The knock on Angerer was that she had not been battletested the way Rottenberg had, since Rottenberg backstopped the squad to their first-ever World Cup win in 2003.
A ligament injury to Rottenberg first gave Angerer a real chance to man the No. 1 spot with regularity. She performed well. German coach Sylvia Neid, a former player who experienced first-hand the delicate balances of team chemistry, stood by her new keeper even after Rottenberg recovered. Angerer, assisted ably by a defense that had grown accustomed to her direction, rewarded that trust with an unprecedented result -- a World Cup title without yielding a single goal to the opposition.
Germany blunted the talent of the Brazilians with a united effort, one that the U.S. team was notably lacking in their game versus Brazil. The reasons behind that are what need to be investigated. Focusing on what Solo said after that historic loss is scapegoating a player who actually had nothing to do with that result, as much as she wished she could be involved.
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.