Without any fanfare, Hope Solo’s six-month suspension from the U.S. women’s national soccer team expired two weeks ago. Any thoughts, however, of her rejoining the reigning World Cup champions this year — or perhaps ever again — were put to rest by two factors: major shoulder surgery during her layoff and speaking her mind too often.
Coach Jill Ellis has moved on, splitting assignments between Alyssa Naeher and Ashlyn Harris for friendlies last fall and the first competition of 2017, the SheBelieves Cup, which will culminate Tuesday at RFK Stadium with second-ranked Germany facing No. 5 England and the top-ranked Americans hosting No. 3 France.
Naeher started in a 1-0 victory against Germany on Wednesday, Harris in a 1-0 defeat to England on Saturday. Ellis won’t say who will get the nod against tournament-leader France, though Naeher is the front-runner. The Americans must win to retain hopes of winning the title for the second consecutive year.
“At this point, both of them still deserve more investment, more time, more experiences to make it a clear decision,” Ellis said Monday before training at the University of Maryland. “The reality is everyone is chomping at the bit for it to be [numbers] one and two. Well, you could pick [number] one this year, and next year she could be two. It’s a long road” to the 2019 World Cup in France.
Meanwhile, Solo has begun fading from the U.S. soccer scene, if not from the spotlight. Her last appearance, her 202nd over 16 years, came in a penalty kick defeat to Sweden after a scoreless quarterfinal last summer at the Olympics in Brazil. Afterward, she called the Swedes “cowards” for implementing defensive tactics.
Even though she is the best female goalkeeper in U.S. and probably international history, the U.S. Soccer Federation had had enough. It levied the suspension not so much for that single comment but for the accumulation of missteps, legal and otherwise, over almost a decade.
In an interview last month with Showtime’s “60 Minutes Sports,” Solo claimed she was dismissed because of her role in the team’s drawn-out efforts to gain greater equality with the men’s squad as part of negotiations over a collective bargaining agreement. Two years ago, it was Solo who persuaded her teammates in the players’ union to hire attorney Rich Nichols to lead the fight; this winter, with a lack of progress, the group voted to dump him.
Talks have resumed, and the sides are cautiously optimistic.
Solo has said she is determined to rejoin the team before the World Cup. But she also called Ellis — the only person who could open the door to a comeback in the foreseeable future — a “poor leader and bad tactician.”
Meanwhile, as she nears her 36th birthday, she is rehabilitating a surgically repaired shoulder, a process that might take more than a year. She’s not expected to rejoin the Seattle Reign in the National Women’s Soccer League this season. The former “Dancing With the Stars” contestant is also pursuing opportunities in the entertainment industry, signing a deal to develop unscripted TV content.
With Solo out of the picture, the U.S. program, for the first time in decades, does not have a clear goalkeeping hierarchy. Since the mid-1990s, the job was occupied, for the most part, by Solo and Briana Scurry. Scurry, who was in net for the 1999 World Cup title, posted 173 appearances (159 starts) and 71 shutouts, second to Solo’s 102, between 1994 and 2008. Only one other goalkeeper in U.S. history, Nicole Barnhart, has appeared in more than 50 matches (2004-13).
Solo’s dominance at the position left few opportunity for others — and created a perception that the backups weren’t up to the task.
“It’s good for people to see we do have good goalkeepers,” said Harris, who joined the NWSL’s Orlando Pride last season after three years with the Washington Spirit. “A lot of people have a [negative] interpretation of how solid our depth is in the position. I don’t think people have given us very much of a chance. So it’s good for people to see us play, to do well, and for people to relax a little bit.”
Naeher, 28, and Harris, 31, have combined for just 23 appearances, eight in the last six months. They seem certain to remain Ellis’s top options for two April friendlies against Russia, two matches in Europe in June and probably the rest of the year. The third keeper in the current camp is Jane Campbell, 22, a Houston Dash rookie from Stanford.
“It’s a competitive environment,” said Naeher, who plays for the Chicago Red Stars, “but it’s a healthy competition.”
Ellis recognizes the importance of her top two keepers playing against world-class opponents, such as the visitors in the SheBelieves Cup. Such opportunities were rare while Solo was entrenched as the starter; she was in the lineup for 28 consecutive matches at major events (World Cup and Olympics), dating from 2008.
With the next World Cup more than two years away, now is the optimal time to test the others.
“There are really good goalkeepers in this country and on this team who deserve to play and get their shot,” Harris said. “That’s what you’re seeing right now.”
Where: RFK Stadium.
Germany vs. England, 4 p.m.
United States vs. France, 7 p.m. (FS1)
France 1-0-1, four points, +1 goal differential
England 1-1-0, three points, 0 GD
United States 1-1-0, three points, 0 GD
Germany 0-1-1, one point, -1 GD