Sunday, April 22, 2018
Sports

Gary Shelton at the Games: Goalie Hope Solo shows why she was U.S.'s best hope in gold-medal win over Japan

LONDON

In one way, it was a story of redemption, the tale of a team finding a way to take away an ache that had lingered for a year.

In another way, it was the story of resiliency, of a benched player finding her way to score two goals in the final of the Olympics.

Most of all, however, it was a story of Hope and how putting up is even better than shutting up.

Hope Solo, the girl with the big mouth and the reckless tweets, was staring down the barrel. It came down to this: The United States women's soccer team was in the 83rd minute against Japan on Thursday night, leading 2-1, and Japanese forward Asuna Tanaka had the ball on her foot, and a one-goal lead never looked so slim. This was putting distance. This was layup distance. This was lean-over-and-turn-off-the-lamp distance.

And Solo stretched and lunged and somehow tapped away a laser beam.

This is what Solo does. She irritates and she annoys and she drives everyone around her crazy, and then the big game comes along and she turns into a giant. She is the shut-your-yap goaltender taking on the world, and somehow she finds a way to back it up when it counts the most.

"She's the best goalkeeper ever on the planet," said teammate Carli Lloyd. "That's what she does. She comes up big in big moments. She's just unbelievable. She's the best ever. The best ever."

Without Solo, the Americans had no hope against Japan. There were huge stretches of the game when the Japanese players seemed to take up residency in the goal box. They sprinted at Solo relentlessly, reminding the world why they were able to upset the Americans in last year's World Cup final.

Solo stood up to the assault, however. She stopped a hard shot in the 17th minute, and in the 18th she pushed a shot upward and over the goal with her left hand. In the 46th minute she survived a pileup and punched the ball away.

"The thing about great athletes and superstars is that they show up when they're needed," said teammate Abby Wambach. "Superstars don't go unnoticed for very long."

Going unnoticed has never been a problem for Solo. She was the goaltender who was sent packing when she complained that Briana Scurry had gotten the start against Brazil instead of her in the semifinals of the 2007 World Cup, a game the Americans lost 4-0. She backed that up in 2008, when she was brilliant against the Brazilians in a match for the Olympic gold medal, a 1-0 win.

This time Solo on Twitter had ripped into NBC analyst Brandi Chastain, a member of two U.S. gold medal teams, for not knowing enough about soccer after a preliminary-round win over Colombia. It was a confusing moment considering how much Solo enjoys her own opinions. It was not, however, the distraction some people believed it would be. Gold medals seem to calm controversies, and Solo was always her team's best shot at that.

"I don't care how people perceive me," said Solo, 31, with some indignation in her voice. "I am who I am. I'm here to win. It's not always pretty, and I don't know when I'm going to be asked to step up, the first game or last game. At some point it's going to come down to the goaltender. I think I tend to play well under pressure, but a lot of great players do."

More than anything, that will be Solo's legacy: a chatterbox who transforms into a champion. She may rub some people wrong, but she can guide a team onto the medal stand.

"Hope was absolutely magnificent," said teammate Megan Rapinoe. "That's the best I've seen her play in a long time. Every time they took a shot, she was there. She's the best goaltender in the world. I don't even think that's a discussion anymore.

"Yeah, she does a lot of talking, but that's who she is. We've accepted that."

Perhaps that's why the Americans have now won four of five gold medals in Olympic play. They never seem to get distracted. They are one of those charmed teams that always seems to have another player grab the moment when it is needed the most.

Solo did that against Japan. Then again, so did Lloyd, a player who began the tournament on the bench. But when Shannon Boxx was injured in the opening game against France, Lloyd came back in. She scored a header in the eighth minute Thursday, and in the 54th she made a nice run and launched the ball into the far corner.

"When 'Boxie' went down, I had to seize the moment," Lloyd said. "When someone tells me I'm not good enough to start, I'm going to prove them wrong."

Pretty good story, Lloyd. So is Wambach, the former Gator who took another step toward joining Mia Hamm as the greatest U.S. women's player of them all. So are the stories of a lot of these players.

And then there is Solo. For a very long time, people will talk about that last moment, the moment when Solo knocked away the final threat.

"I knew I had to make that save," Solo said. "It wasn't my best save. I guess when you look at it now, it's against Japan in the final and it's in the final minutes. It's a bigger deal now."

Soon, Solo will find controversy again. She will say something on Twitter again that outrages people, or she will say something that will raise eyebrows. Some people cannot seem to help themselves. That's part of Solo's legacy.

Eventually, however, there will come a moment when Solo has to protect the net from an opposing threat.

She will, of course. That's the better part of Solo's legacy. The part made out of gold.

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