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Mellinger | She’s part of U.S. team, but still Solo

08/09/2012 12:00 AM

05/16/2014 7:20 PM

The baddest, wildest, don’t-give-a-flip-est woman in American team sports is taking a victory lap in front of more fans than could fit in all but one stadium back home. Hope Solo is laughing. She is smiling. She is waving at bunches of friends and thousands of strangers in a country that’s always loved her sport — just not her gender playing it.

This is her moment. She wraps herself in an American flag. She is the star. She is the face. She is the mouth. And in a 2-1 win over Japan in the Olympic women’s soccer final Thursday at Wembley Stadium, she is the reason the Team USA dynasty is back with another gold medal.

That was her, at the front of the line with a gold medal around her neck and flowers in her hands, singing the national anthem as loud as her lungs could sing it.

“Honestly,” she says, “it’s the first time in my athletic career that I felt like it was a true team.”

Solo’s words there will be taken and repeated a million times now, connected to the Big Controversy she started by lashing out at former teammate and current broadcaster Brandi Chastain for relatively tame criticism of Team USA. Those words are also “quintessential Hope,” which is exactly how teammate Megan Rapinoe described the game.

She is immature or defending a teammate, oversensitive or proud, lacking focus or overflowing with passion. Maybe she just wants to help move her upcoming book off the shelves.

Either way, the women’s soccer portion of these Olympics became Solo’s. She was already the most recognizable athlete on her country’s most recognizable women’s team, the one in the most commercials, the most ads, the most web clicks.

Whatever, it was entirely unnecessary — and entirely her.

“I don’t care how people perceive me,” she says. “I am who I am. I’m here to win.”

Those words are also quintessential Hope, and if she didn’t play like this in the gold medal game, the American sports landscape would perceive her differently. But we love a winner, especially a lively one, especially one who plays out of her mind on the big stage, and especially one who does it for Team USA.

The gold medal — that’s four out of five for America, a better stretch than any country has had in the men’s World Cup — doesn’t make up for losing to Japan in penalty kicks in last year’s World Cup. But it does push Team USA back on top of the women’s soccer mountain, and it did make for a terrific night for Solo to be at her swagger-est best.

Team USA needed everyone, of course. Solo is talking about more than just what happens during 90 minutes when she drops that “true team” line, of course, but it fits in that context as well.

Japan is skilled, and last year’s World Cup win does not stand as a fluke. Carli Lloyd scored both goals — the first on a terrific pass by Alex Morgan, the second she created largely on her own. A couple of balls got by Solo. Once, Christie Rampone made a stop.

But if the soccer adage Solo likes to repeat — “keepers don’t win games, they save them” — is true then she saved the Americans. In the 18th minute, it was a jumping, fingertip save with her left hand on a header by Yuki Ogimi. In the 83rd minute, it was a gold-saving stop after Rampone lost it to Mana Iwabuchi and Solo dived what seemed to be 100 feet to her left to knock it away.

Lucky? Over and over, Solo’s teammates call her the best keeper in the world, a title that’s repeated in many international soccer circles.

The truth is, Solo wanted this. She wanted the gold medal to come down to her moment, her skills, her reaction. This tournament didn’t give her that in the first five games. The Americans gave up three goals in the miraculous semifinal win over Canada, and Solo could’ve made her mark then, but she also accurately alluded to some shoddy defense in front of her.

So she wanted this. The big stage, the largest crowd ever to watch an Olympic women’s soccer game in the sport’s most famous stadium. She got her chance — with cameras flashing 360 degrees around her, marriage proposals written on paperboard — a moment all to herself.

If she missed it, who knows? Maybe the game goes to penalty kicks and Japan wins again. But she didn’t miss it. She backed up her talk, backed up the talk from others, rose to the moment that you’d expect from the baddest, wildest, don’t-give-a-flip-est woman in American team sports. The truth is, she wanted this. Desperately.

“I was hoping it would come, and it finally did,” she says. “I tend to play well under pressure. But a lot of great players do.”

Quintessential Hope, indeed.

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