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Thursday, November 29, 2012
Hope Solo's future under new coach uncertain

By Kate Fagan

Hope Solo
Hope Solo wasn't tested in the USWNT's latest Fan Tribute Tour stop, a 5-0 win over Ireland on Wednesday.

What to do about Hope Solo?

That's a question nobody is asking yet -- not publicly, anyway.

On Jan. 1, Tom Sermanni takes over as coach of the U.S. women's national soccer team, a change that ensures that fresh eyes are about to evaluate every player on the roster, including the one who currently starts at goalkeeper: Solo.

To some people, this coaching change feels like switching the hood ornament on a luxury vehicle. The engine remains the same, doesn't it? We're talking about a team with significant momentum, only a few months removed from winning Olympic gold in London. The squad, which features several marketable women, is in the middle of a Fan Tribute Tour. For the next month, everything is smiles, high fives and no-pressure matches. This is the happy-go-lucky portion of the team's schedule, as "Fan Tribute Tour" is synonymous, of course, with "victory tour."

As long as she does her job between the posts, that's what I care about most. If it's starting to affect her play -- which I don't think it ever has -- then we can worry about it. But as far as I know, she's the best. Off the field is off the field.

-- U.S. soccer team member Megan Rapinoe, on Hope Solo's off-the-field issues

But we are still two and a half years removed from the team's next marquee event: the 2015 Women's World Cup. And anyone who thinks Sermanni won't be building his own engine, to match his brand of soccer, is kidding herself. Just as Pia Sundhage, the team's former coach, put her own stamp on things when she took over in 2007, Sermanni will have a new take on the roster, on what works and what doesn't, on who fits and who doesn't.

More specifically, he will need to decide whether Solo, who will be 34 years old in the summer of 2015, is still worth the occasional PR headache or if she's a case of diminished returns.

Sermanni will make tweaks, cuts, adds and notable changes, but none will be as important -- or as scrutinized -- as his assessment of Solo, who has spent a good portion of her career mired in controversy of her own making. And Sermanni does have other options at keeper, including Jill Loyden, a backup on the senior national team who needs more big-match experience, and Ashlyn Harris and Alyssa Naeher, both former college stars now playing in Germany.

Sundhage seemed to make a calculated decision on Solo, believing the goalkeeper's talent so far outweighed the next-best option that dealing with her continual drama (see here, here and here) was a price worth paying. In other words, Sundhage processed a human equation. She concluded the team could absorb the Solo spectacle and handle the distraction in exchange for the brilliant goalkeeping of a player in her prime.

Sundhage's choice made sense -- at least in 2008 and 2012. Solo was 27 and fully healthy for the Beijing Olympics. At the London Games, though 31 and a year removed from career-threatening shoulder surgery, she was still arguably the best female goalkeeper in the world. By 2015, where will Solo be then? Will her game remain so superior that the equation, the pluses and minuses, still comes out in her favor?

Right now, Solo is once again in the news for all the wrong reasons. Two weeks ago, she married former NFL tight end Jerramy Stevens, a notorious bad boy, one day after he was booked on suspicion of domestic violence. No charges were filed. On Tuesday, Solo told reporters she is "happily married." She also said she would never stand for domestic violence and that she has "never been hit in her life." (In Solo's memoir, released during the summer, she said she was shoved by former national team coach Greg Ryan and slapped by dancing partner Maksim Chmerkovskiy while training for "Dancing with the Stars." Both men denied Solo's account.) On Wednesday, Stevens was arrested in Florida for violating his probation.

While it might seem none of this has anything to do with soccer, it does. When the U.S. women's national team plays, and the members answer questions before and after games, far too often those questions are about Solo -- and not about her goalkeeping. Take midfielder Megan Rapinoe, who before Wednesday's match against Ireland tactfully answered a question about Solo's latest foray into the news cycle.

"She has to deal with it more than we do," Rapinoe said. "But really, as long as she does her job between the posts, that's what I care about most. If it's starting to affect her play -- which I don't think it ever has -- then we can worry about it. But as far as I know, she's the best. Off the field is off the field."

Behind closed doors, more than a few people associated with the national team wonder whether Sermanni will calculate the Solo equation differently than Sundhage did, as different variables -- age, injury, increasing off-field distractions -- exist today. This isn't the kind of calculation Sermanni can plug into a machine; it's a human equation.

So, again:

What to do about Hope Solo?