Hope Solo delivers more magic for U.S.
MONCHENGLADBACH, Germany -- By Hope Solo's standards, it was a mixed night. Most other keepers would have considered it a good one.
Solo has unquestionably been the best stopper at the Women's World Cup, and that was once again evidenced -- mostly -- Wednesday when the U.S. beat an impressive France 3-1 in a chilly, misty semifinal in Monchengladbach.
There were no penalty saves, and Solo, like her teammates, saw her performance dip a little following Sunday's dramatic, energy-sapping victory over Brazil. Perhaps it was predictable. But no one should forget Solo's brilliance in the first half, when France pressed and pressed yet couldn't find a way through. France keeper Berangere Sapowicz, meanwhile, looked like a mistake waiting to happen every time a ball was lofted inside the box. On the kind of night that could doom many keepers, Solo's ball handling in the slick conditions was impeccable.
"In the beginning of the game she was important," said a relieved looking Pia Sundhage, the U.S. manager. "And the other thing is, she's been playing a lot of good games. She's had a lot of good practices, and as a defender and a team, you get confident by knowing she's back there. You're perfectly good to lay it back to her because she's good with the feet."
It hasn't been easy, but this is where we expected to be. We came this far, we better go all the way.” -- Hope Solo
Solo and her teammates are now one win away from capping an emotional, surreal tournament with a first title in 12 years. They're looking to create their own legacy, escaping the shadows of the 1999 U.S. squad.
"It was a hard-fought road," Solo said, holding a ball with U.S. signatures to mark her 100th cap. "It hasn't been easy, but this is where we expected to be. We came this far, we better go all the way."
Solo put her stamp on the game within the opening 10 minutes, keeping out Louisa Necib's shot from the edge of the box. Necib, mentioned in the same sentence as Zinedine Zidane because of her skill on the ball and her ties to Marseille and Algerian roots, made it look easy at times waltzing through the midfield.
Gaetane Thiney, scoring for fun this season, was the next to be thwarted by Solo when put through by Necib. With the U.S. holding a slender 1-0 lead, Solo rushed off her line to palm away Thiney's shot from close range. "I realized she was going to beat me to the ball, and I had to hold my ground," Solo said. "That's the best thing I could have done. If you keep your feet moving, you're going to be not settled enough to make the save."
France buzzed around Solo overall, firing 25 shots, eight on target.
The bad? Solo sent a kick straight to an opposing player when the score was 1-1, though Les Bleus couldn't take advantage. "Like everyone else, she made a couple of mistakes," Sundhage said.
Whether France's goal in the 55th minute was down to Solo is up for debate. An outstanding ball from Sonia Bompastor on the left just missed her target, Thiney, and ended up beating Solo to the far post. As Solo says, it was one of those nightmare balls, almost perfect. "If I just predicted the ball going to the far post and she headed it to my near post, I would have probably regretted that," she said. "However, I wasn't happy at all that it went in. It was kind of a shot-cross."
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If it was indeed an error, her teammates will give her that one. Even France's players recognized Solo's value.
"I think she talks a lot to her defense," said French defender Laura Georges, pointing out the leadership role that the U.S. keeper relishes.
Solo's performance at this World Cup has seemingly diminished the impact of her scathing criticism of Greg Ryan at the 2007 showpiece. She memorably ripped Ryan for selecting Briana Scurry instead in the semifinals, and Brazil cruised 4-0. Several times in the past week and a half, Solo has essentially called it old news.
Of course, she won't have to worry about her starting spot Sunday. But whoever faces the U.S. has cause for concern, because getting the ball past Solo has become one of the most difficult feats of this World Cup.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter here.
2011 Women's World Cup
2011 champion: Japan
Topics: Women's World Cup