Hope Solo's painful journey
Among the many words that have been attached to Hope Solo over the years, the one that seems to stick to her more than any other is "outspoken."
And she can't stand it.
Never mind that Solo is perhaps best known for her postgame tirade at the 2007 World Cup, in which she criticized her benching by then-U.S. women's national team manager Greg Ryan before the team's semifinal against Brazil, a game in which the U.S. was hammered 4-0. Never mind her statements on Twitter -- many of which have since been removed from public view -- in which she has lambasted everything from the behavior of opposition fans to the league she plays in, Women's Professional Soccer (WPS). In the process, she has ruffled plenty of feathers, and even drawn a fine from the league.
Solo views herself through a much different lens and, not surprisingly, it is significantly at odds with her public image. She insists she is more of an introvert who is content to spend quiet time with family or reading a book. Of course, that is a side the public never sees, and it's all the more reason for Solo to take issue with a label that she feels doesn't fit.
Obviously I'm loved by fans and hated by fans, and my entire life has been about proving people wrong.” -- Hope Solo
"First of all, I'm not outspoken," she said before her team's first send-off game against Japan. "Say what you want about the tweets, say what you want about 'opinionated.' I would tell you right now: People don't know me. They don't know where I came from, they make their judgments off some stupid social media thing, and I'll take my critics for what [they are]. Nobody really knows who I am, where I came from, what's in my heart, why I believe in the things I believe, what I see behind the scenes and they don't see. Unfortunately, people think I'm negative and bitter all the time, and that's not the case.
"It's all about perspective," Solo added. "I have high expectations on the U.S. team, I always push for more, push for the best, whatever that may be: doctors or the best professional environment that we can make it be. And I think that's something that is our responsibility as older players. I'm 30 now, and I think that when we lost the Julie Foudys and the Mia Hamms, we lost that voice. And I think it's our responsibility to push the envelope and try to get the best that we can get to be professional athletes."
Yet what outsiders see least of all is her pain. This isn't just about the emotional pain she went through in the aftermath of her World Cup meltdown. Back then, Solo was basically shunned by her teammates and had to completely rebuild those relationships, work that eventually paid off with a gold-medal triumph at the 2008 Olympics.
But in September, Solo underwent a physical reconstruction as opposed to a mental one. Years of pounding from innumerable saves had left her right shoulder a complete wreck. These days, a complete 360-degree tear of the labrum is referred to as "the Drew Brees injury." Solo went several steps beyond that. There was no articular cartilage left in her shoulder joint, forcing her to undergo a microfracture procedure in which the bone is made to bleed to create new, substitute cartilage. The biceps tendon had detached completely from the bone. Three separate pieces of bone had come clean off the shoulder. It's the type of injury usually accompanied by the words "career-ending."
"This is among the most serious shoulder injuries in an athlete that I've ever seen, and I've been working in sports for 28 years," said Bruce Snell, a physical therapist who worked extensively with Solo during her rehabilitation. "And I can't imagine too many worse injuries, from a traumatic standpoint."
With the World Cup looming, Solo made the decision to have her shoulder rebuilt. In the operation performed, by renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews, 11 different anchors were put in place to stabilize the joint. Solo then embarked upon an onerous rehab program that, according to Snell, involved sessions that lasted upward of six hours a day. Among the activities were "uncomfortable stretching" for hours at a time, as well as an immense amount of strength work. Given that Solo had been protecting the shoulder for so long, she also had to be retrained in terms of how she moved her arm so the muscles surrounding the joint could be engaged properly.
But among the most difficult aspects was breaking down the scar tissue that had built up after the operation. "The difficulty of the shoulder joint is that it moves in so many planes," Snell said. "Your knee basically bends back and forth. Your shoulder joint has to move in a 360-degree kind of motion, so there's scar tissue in all of these different areas that have to be stretched out in every conceivable way."
Nine months removed from the surgery, the pain hasn't gone completely away. Solo said there is discomfort in warm-ups when she's catching her first few shots of the day. There are times when she's woken up in the middle of the night by a "deep, deep ache." And she hasn't gotten all her range of motion back, and doesn't expect to, either. In the middle of a hotel lobby in Columbus, Ohio, Solo demonstrates how her reach with her right arm is an inch or two lower than her left.
"It's been a very tough road, but I'm starting to realize the pain is always going to be there, so I've stopped protecting it as much," she said. "I used to try to shy away from the pain and pull my shoulder back, but I'm learning to roll with it. It's been hard."
As for what has been harder -- the emotional healing that took place before the Olympics or the physical healing from her surgery -- Solo indicated it was difficult to compare the two.
"They're so different," she said. "I think the healing that went on between 2007 and 2008 was about a lot of trust issues that I had. And it wasn't just about me. I could control the things that I could control, but at the end of the day everybody had to buy into the team, to win something, to move on. Right now, I feel like it's all on me. If I come back from the shoulder surgery, it's because of the work I put in, along with my medical team. But nobody knows what I do behind the scenes. It's the work I put in to get back on the team and help our team win. It's two entirely different things, but both are incredibly tough."
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Yet after playing a handful of games for WPS club side magicJack, as well as appearing in each of the three send-off games that the U.S. had, there doesn't seem to be much doubt that Solo is back. Granted, she wasn't called upon to make a ton of saves in those warm-up games with the U.S., but she was sharp enough to convince everyone involved that she's ready.
"I've seen Hope's progression, and it's just gotten better and better" said U.S. captain and club teammate Christie Rampone. "I've played in front of her in WPS, and she was getting better each day. You can see the confidence building. Every week it's just amazing to see how she overcame such a major injury and see where she's at right now."
Solo's recovery is happening just in time. While she was recuperating, the U.S. lost three games. For most teams this wouldn't be that big a deal, but for a team as accustomed to dominating as the U.S. women are, it amounted to a borderline crisis. The Americans were upset during World Cup qualifying by Mexico and had to go through a home-and-away playoff against Italy to qualify for Germany. Since then there have been losses to Sweden and England.
Most of this was down to the awkward transition that took place when manager Pia Sundhage instituted a more possession-based style. For that reason, it would be unfair to lay the blame for the Americans' struggles on reserve goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart. But there is consensus that in a tournament in which host Germany is the heavy favorite, Solo will need to be at her best for the Americans to prevail. The effect she has on her teammates is certainly palpable.
"When other teams see [Solo] in the goal, they know they're going to have to have that point-blank shot for it to go in," Rampone said. "I think she puts that fear in the other forwards. One, it's good to have her presence in goal [intimidating] the other team. But playing in front of her, she's vocal, she's committed, she's strong and knows what she wants. It's great to have that presence behind you, because when you hear it, you believe it, whether it's telling where the mark is or whether you're marking up or not doing a good job. I love that."
That word, "presence," is one that comes up often whenever Solo's name is mentioned by coaches, opponents and teammates. And that attribute is best illustrated by her performance in the 2008 Olympic gold-medal game against Brazil. For long stretches of that match, the Samba Queens were all over the U.S. and when Marta broke through for a clean look at goal in the 72nd minute from 8 yards out, it looked like Brazil would finally make a breakthrough. But Solo came up with a superb reflex save, and the U.S. eventually won the match in extra time on a goal by Carli Lloyd.
"It was almost like Brazil lost hope, and the U.S. took the game back," said former World Cup-winning manager Tony DiCicco, without realizing the play on words. "That one play changed it, and that's how big one goalkeeper's play can be. Hope, if she's back and healthy, she'll be one of the best goalkeepers in the world."
Those are expectations that Solo doesn't shy away from. One could even argue that the pressure was greater in 2008, considering her reintegration into the team and the fact that the U.S. was more of a defend-first side than it is now. Of course, the shoulder injury complicates things significantly, yet Solo is no less determined now than she has been at other points in her career.
"I do think my role on this team is going to be very important" Solo said. "I also think a forward has to step up. You go right down the middle, you need a forward, you need a midfielder, you need a defender and you need a goalkeeper. But yeah, I know my role is very important. I can handle that pressure. I expect that pressure. It really is the life of a goalkeeper, and I've had that pressure on me my entire life."
And in the process, will she win over her critics? Not likely, but Solo seems to accept the almost symbiotic relationship she has with her detractors.
"Obviously I'm loved by fans and hated by fans, and my entire life has been about proving people wrong," she said. "I think it's just where I've come from and where my life has taken me. And I don't think that's a bad thing. I think I've used it for fuel. I like to defy odds, I really do like to. I like to challenge myself, and sometimes I don't like the challenges that I'm faced with, but I always end up on the other side of them, and I'm confident that I can do that."
If Solo is successful on this occasion, the U.S. will become World Cup champion for the first time in 12 years. And that's a label Solo will be more than happy to wear.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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