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Monday, September 26, 2011
Hope Solo dealing with the stars

By Elizabeth Merrill
ESPN.com

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Pandemonium has erupted in the streets in middle America. Little girls are screaming. A young man with a good job and seemingly all of his faculties is holding up a sign that says, "HOPE SOLO, I WANT TO HAVE YOUR BABY." And here's another sign that something big has just hit Kansas City: The local DJs and shock jocks, who normally come to work dressed in flip-flops and the occasional mustard-stained T-shirt, are conspicuously dressed up. Hope Solo is in town. Shouldn't that be followed by several exclamation points?

She will do seven radio shows by 9:30 a.m., fielding everything from, "How did you get over the World Cup loss?" to, "Are you into dudes or are you into girls?" She will roll her eyes but answer all the questions, flashing a confidence and modelesque smile that launched this comet ride two months ago on a soccer field in Germany.

"It's all in fun," Solo says in between television appearances and wedding proposals. "I take everything with a grain of salt." Clearly, she has no clue as to how huge this has become. Two months after the United States women's soccer team's runner-up finish in the World Cup, Solo is the "it girl," an American sweetheart, which may seem kind of funny considering her history and her job. She's a goalkeeper, for God's sake, which means she is the biggest oddball on the soccer field. Four years ago, she was considered a malcontent and was temporarily banished from the U.S. women's soccer team after speaking her mind. Now look at her. America can't get enough.

On this particular fall Friday, she'll bounce from her radio tour of Kansas City to a scheduled five-hour rehearsal for "Dancing With the Stars" to a soccer practice with a couple of thousand screaming ponytails clamoring for her autograph.

She'll do it rather seamlessly, with the help of a large cup of coffee and a tour guide/media chaperone named Rob. She'll do it because Solo knows that at any time, this ride might end.

The marketing of Solo

Do they love her for her substance or style? When they swoon over Hope Solo, are they aware of her backstory, how she had to win her teammates back before she could win America's heart, how the daughter of a homeless man is now worth millions because she did everything right?

Hope Solo and Abby Wambach
Solo celebrates with teammate Abby Wambach after winning in a shootout during the 2011 Women's World Cup quarterfinal against Brazil.

Sports marketing is more complicated than that. For female athletes, it's all about timing and opportunity, and Solo's came on a summer day in Germany, when the United States women's soccer team rallied for a shootout victory against Brazil in the World Cup quarterfinals and Solo kept throwing her body around in the grass, stopping shots.

There were at least two U.S. superstars that day -- Solo and Abby Wambach, who tied the game with a header in the 122nd minute. Two months later, Wambach is no doubt popular, but has nowhere near the marketing punch of Solo. A Google search turns up more than 1.7 million results on Wambach; Solo's search yields 10 times that amount.

Scott Becher, a sports marketing guru who's president of Sports and Sponsorships, pauses when asked why Solo's name is so much bigger.

"Boy, there's a great question," Becher says. "I don't have the answer."

Asked if Solo's appearance plays a part in it, Becher says, "Of course it does. But it's not just looks. With Hope, and this has nothing to do with Abby or anyone else, but don't you think there is kind of a sexy appeal to her looks?"

So it's complicated for female athletes. There are so many more intangibles. Hope Solo will never be Peyton Manning. She does not have the benefit of playing in a sport of massive American appeal, with 16 televised games per season. She spends her summers in a professional soccer league that is fledgling at best, on a team that is named after a telecommunications device.

If athletes like Solo are going to cash in on endorsements and TV face time, it is going to be in a very brief window after a major international event like the World Cup, which happens just once every four years.

"It's very unique to Olympic athletes," Becher says. "Typically, once they're out of the competitive spotlight, their star tends to dim a little bit. The athletes who conquer that hurdle are the ones that find a way to transcend their sport and start to resonate in pop culture."

Two months later, the 30-year-old Solo is still resonating. She is on primetime TV twice a week now in her stint with "Dancing With the Stars," she has endorsement deals with Gatorade and Bank of America, she has driven the pace car at the Brickyard 500 and done time on the couch with the women from "The View."

Two weekends ago, on a Saturday in the heart of college football country, Solo and the U.S. women's soccer team nearly sold out an 18,000-seat stadium for a friendly match with Canada in Kansas City. Rob Thomson, Sporting KC's vice president of communications, says Solo commanded far more interview requests for the event than Mia Hamm did back in 1999 when the U.S. women actually won the World Cup.

Hope Solo
Solo and Maks appear on "The View."

"If you looked at our crowd in '99, it was all females," Thomson said. "This crowd seemed about 55/45 [women to men].

"That's probably a credit to Hope. I think she opens the door to both genders."

But this story, Solo and her teammates say, is about more than endorsements, popularity contests or Twitter trending (Solo, by the way, has added roughly 290,000 followers since the World Cup). It's about using this bounce to push the thing they love the most, to drive it down a country's throat.

Solo says she's a soccer player first. If America falls in love with her in spiked heels twirling around a dance floor, maybe they'll come back and watch her when she's in cleats and in front of a soccer goal. Maybe her teammates will be talked about for more than a few weeks every four years.

"This explosion in her game or whatever hasn't changed her at all," backup goalkeeper Jill Loyden said. "She's probably one of the hardest-working people on the team. She's the best in the world and deserves everything good that comes to her."

The dance

It has been said that Solo is refreshingly open and outspoken and can be one of the most candid interviews in sports. This is not one of those days. It's been a long morning of radio interviews that hit every demographic, from oldies to alternative to news-radio. She's 45 minutes late for her rehearsal at United Dance Inc., a small, brick dance studio with a large Jazzercise sign in the window. Six of her teammates have shown up to watch her dance, and they're staring and giggling as she's trying to knock out this last interview of the morning.

When she's asked a question about herself, she responds with mostly rah-rah team-first answers. Perhaps she's conscious of the fact that she's received far more attention than the rest of them in the months since the World Cup; perhaps she's just interview-weary.

Hope Solo
Hope Solo and Maksim Chmerkovskiy perform during the season premiere of "Dancing With The Stars."

"You have my focus," she says when her eyes drift away to her friends goofing around and stretching like dancers.

Solo's dance partner, Maksim Chmerkovskiy, is standing beside her, joking about athletes' attention spans, which he says last for approximately 2.5 seconds. He made the trip to Kansas City to do some last-minute rehearsing, but also to watch her play soccer. Chmerkovskiy, who's known as Maks, is wearing neon-green pants. He is handsome and funny and one of the most popular dancers on the show.

Last season, he was paired with actress Kirstie Alley. Like Solo, Chmerkovskiy has faced adversity in the heat of competition. His leg gave out in Week 3 last season, causing himself and Alley to tumble; a week later, Kirstie's shoe fell off during their routine.

But seriously, this is a competition, and Chmerkovskiy and Solo are competitive people. The liveliest part of the interview comes when Solo lists the things she's beaten her partner at over the past few weeks.

She won at hangman and pingpong, she says. She beat him at Wii tennis and Wii golf …

"You did not beat me at pingpong," he says, until Solo reminds him, and he concedes and says, "Oh yes."

"I'm just being a gentleman about a lot of things," he says.

Chmerkovskiy says they have to practice, so the interview ends, and the Dave Matthews song "Satellite" blasts over a boombox. He grabs her hand and they spin around the shiny wood floor while her teammates bunch together and quietly watch on a pile of mats in the corner. Their eyes are huge.

When the song ends, the soccer players stand and cheer.

"That was so good," they say.

"That was awesome."

Soccer in the spotlight

There has been no visible jealousy or disdain about Solo's popularity on the U.S. women's soccer team. Her teammates love her. Wambach, who four years ago questioned Solo's outspokenness, jumped into her arms after that emotional victory over Brazil a few months ago.

Hope Solo
Solo sits with teammates Aly Wagner, left, and Natasha Kai after Solo was benched during the 2007 Women's World Cup.

The story, in their eyes, is beyond ancient now. It was the 2007 World Cup. Solo's father, a Vietnam veteran who lived in the woods, had just died of heart failure. It was an emotional time for Solo, which probably contributed to her controversial statements after she was benched in favor of veteran goalkeeper Briana Scurry. Solo said she would've stopped the goals Scurry allowed in a loss to Brazil, and she was subsequently banned from the team's third-place game and their flight back from China.

But she came back that following uncomfortable year to help lead her team to a gold medal in the Beijing Olympics, and slowly earned back her teammates' trust.

"Look, I think performance is what Americans really care about," Wambach says. "In America, if you talk the talk, then you need to walk the walk. She's walked the walk for the last four years.

"So Hope Solo deserves everything she's getting right now. She's one of the best goalkeepers in the entire world, she proves it day in and day out, and we don't want to go back in time. We don't want to talk about the historical things that happened. Because guess what? We all make mistakes, we're all growing up at some point, and we learn life lessons that way."

When the U.S. women's soccer team wraps up practice on a recent Friday night, it is Wambach -- not Solo -- who grabs the microphone. She thanks Kansas City for showing up to their workout. She apologizes for the runner-up finish in the World Cup, but guess what next year is? London, baby, she says. Another shot at the Olympics. The crowd goes wild.

Wambach says they are ambassadors for this sport. She says she'll watch Solo on "Dancing With The Stars" and cheer her on, because every week she survives is another week of soccer in the spotlight.

"It's a responsibility we all have to take seriously," Wambach said. "I mean, look, we're at a training session, and there's thousands of people here, thousands of little kids whose hopes and aspirations and dreams are hanging on how we perform on the field. It's an extension of who they are and who they could be."

The serenade

Solo/Sapong
C.J. Sapong of Sporting Kansas City serenades Solo during her appearance in K.C.

It's not just little girls who were inspired. C.J. Sapong, a rookie for the MLS team Sporting KC, was so entranced that day in July that he sat in his apartment, eschewing his normal midday nap, and watched that Brazil match to the end. He knew practically nothing about Solo before that day, but was both impressed and smitten from that day forward.

"Her intensity and competitiveness on the field is something that people admire whether it's a guy, girl, grownup or child," Sapong said. "And obviously, she's attractive …"

Sapong was so inspired that he wrote a poem for Solo during her recent trip to Kansas City. And he sang it to her before practice.

Solo was visibly embarrassed. She blushed during the serenade, which was belted out in front of her teammates. But when he was finished, she laughed and planted a kiss on Sapong's cheek.

"At first, I know she was like, 'Who is this creep?'" Sapong said. "I was very nervous.

"Maybe before that I was a little head over heels. But after I did it and got a feel for her personality, she seems like a real chilled person, and kind of like me. She enjoys having a good time."

The YouTube video, which is less than two weeks old, has already received 346,000 hits.

'She's not a follower'

As one of Solo's closest friends, Tina Ellertson worries about her sometimes. She wonders when Solo sleeps these days. But Ellertson is certain Solo won't spread herself too thin. She's surrounded herself with too many friends and folks back home to do that.

Solo grew up in Richland, Wash., population 49,000, near the Hanford nuclear site. During one of her radio interviews in Kansas City recently, she joked about the glamours of living near a nuclear plant. Deep down, Solo, Ellertson says, is a small-town girl who never would have expected to be this big.

She still takes time to hang out, dance and act goofy with Ellertson's daughter, MacKenzie. When Solo commemorated her 100th cap last week, she walked out onto the field holding the 10-year-old's hand.

"She's so unique," says Ellertson, who played soccer with her at the University of Washington and on the national team. "There's nobody out there like Hope Solo. Just the way she thinks, the way she wants to do things. "And it gets her in trouble sometimes, too, because she's so honest and so real. But I think that's why everybody loves her.

"She's not a follower. I love that about her. She likes to be set apart. But she's also very accepting of others and very loving. She just really has her way of approaching life."

Maybe it's not all that complicated. Soccer, Solo says, is her life. Everything else is just for fun.

She has no idea how this will all turn out, whether she'll end up overexposed or in 20 years will be viewed as one of the women who helped make soccer America's biggest sport. She has no idea if she'll trip over her heels and make a fool out of herself in front of millions on TV.

If it happens, chances are she'll laugh, unconcerned about how it looks. That's for the people to decide.

"I think every athlete has their window of opportunity, and you just have to jump on it," Solo says. "You never know when it can end. So I'm just trying to live large while I have the opportunity."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.