From the vault: Sept. 27, 2007
In the 2007 World Cup, 25-year-old goalkeeper Hope Solo was on a roll. After a 2-2 draw against North Korea, the United States had run off three straight shutouts, beating Sweden 2-0, Nigeria 1-0, and England 3-0.
Team USA was in the final four, facing Brazil. The winner would advance to the championship game.
That was when U.S. coach Greg Ryan made one of the most asinine moves in team history: He benched his young keeper in favor of her 36-year-old backup, Briana Scurry.
Scurry, of course, was an American legend, one of the heroes of the shootout victory over China in the 1999 World Cup final. She’d also won a gold medal in the 2004 Olympics. In her day, she was magnificent. (She is still the all-time leader among U.S. keepers in appearances, starts, wins, and shutouts. Last year, to Solo’s chagrin, a panel of 56 soccer experts — current and former players, coaches, writers and others — chose Scurry as the keeper on the the U.S. women’s All-Time Best XI.)
But by September of 2007, her best days were behind her. Scurry was old and rusty. She hadn’t played a single minute in the World Cup; she hadn’t played a full game in three months.
The quick, athletic Brazilians lacerated her, coasting to a 4-1 win and ending the United
States’ World Cup quest. It was the Americans’ worst defeat in 22 years.
In fairness, it wasn’t all Scurry’s fault. If she didn’t play spectacularly against Brazil, she had plenty of company among her teammates.
In the 20th minute, the United States handed Brazil an own goal when midfielder Leslie Osborn misplayed a Brazilian corner kick she was trying to clear. Seven minutes later, the gifted Brazilian striker Marta won the ball from one American, then dribbled and darted to get free of two others for a clear shot.
Then, as the first half was drawing to a close, midfielder Shannon Boxx drew her second yellow card and was sent off. The United States was forced to play the second half a person down.
When Solo — still seething over Ryan’s decision to bench her — was interviewed after the game, it was like putting a match to gasoline.
“It was the wrong decision,” she said, “and I think anybody that knows anything about the game knows that.”
That would have been bad enough. It’s rarely wise for a player to criticize her coach in public. In this case, though, Solo might have gotten away with it, because she was right. Ryan had made a catastrophic mistake.
But with her next words, the gasoline exploded. Solo lit into the legend:
“There’s no doubt in my mind I would have made those saves,” she said. “And the fact of the matter is, it’s not 2004 anymore. It’s not 2004. It’s 2007, and I think you have to live in the present. And you can’t live by big names. You can’t live in the past.
“It doesn’t matter what somebody did in an Olympic gold medal game in the Olympics three years ago. Now is what matters, and that’s what I think.”
She would later say over and over that it was never her intention to hurt or embarrass Scurry, that her criticisms were meant for Ryan.
But there aren’t many ways to interpret, “I would have made those saves,” and, “You can’t live in the past,” and, “It doesn’t matter what somebody did … three years ago.”
Whatever Solo intended to say, what she said was: Briana Scurry is washed up.
Her comments caused a sensation throughout the soccer world. She would later apologize to Scurry, and, under some duress, to her teammates. She apologized to U.S. Soccer. She apologized to fans. She apologized privately. She apologized publicly.
She even apologized on the now obscure social media site MySpace. That was before most people had heard of “social media” (or Twitter or Facebook), and long before social media became such a powerful tool for athletes and other celebrities to reach vast audiences.
“I am not proud or happy the way things have come out,” she wrote on her MySpace page. “Although I stand strong in everything I said, the true disheartening moment for me was realizing it could look as though I was taking a direct shot at my own teammate. I would never throw such a low blow. Never. … In my eyes there is no justification to put down a teammate. That is not what I was doing.
“I am confident in knowing that I would have made a major difference on the field. I have to believe that … or why am I a professional trying to be the very best? I also have agreed to disagree with our head coach and I stand firm in my beliefs that it was the wrong decision.
“However, to put down a teammate was never, ever my intent. I only wanted to speak of my own abilities yet also recognize that the past is the past. Things were taken out of context, or analyzed differently from my true meaning … For that I am sorry.”
None of that kept her from being temporarily banished by her teammates. Partly, that’s because many of them doubted the sincerity of her apologies. It’s hard to sound truly contrite when you keep adding, as part of your apology, but what I said is true.
For years afterward, long after the storm of 2007 had blown over, Solo would still grow testy or defiant when the subject came up in interviews. Her typical response would be to repeat that she never meant to hurt Scurry; then to say she stood by her original comments — the comments that hurt Scurry.
In August 2012, for example, after winning the gold medal at the 2012 Olympics (and while plugging her book, Solo: A Memoir of Hope), Solo was interviewed by Savannah Guthrie on NBC’s Today show. Guthrie asked her if she had any regrets about the 2007 brouhaha.
“No,” Solo said. “I am who I am, and I’m proud of that. I do believe that back in ’07 I would have made those saves…”
Less than a month after the World Cup debacle, U.S. Soccer announced that Ryan’s contract, which ran through 2007, would not be extended. In essence, he was fired.
His successor, Pia Sundhage, left no doubt about who the starting goalkeeper was. In June of 2008, she left Scurry off the active roster for the Beijing Olympics. (Scurry was an alternate.) With Solo in goal, the Americans won the gold medal. In the championship game against Brazil, she made save after save to preserve a 1-0 victory.
Hope Solo and her teammates had made their peace. Sort of.
Reading her memoir, it’s apparent that even today she bears scars and holds grudges from 2007.
As it turned out, Greg Ryan didn’t think up his dumb-ass idea alone. Abby Wambach and Kristine Lilly, two of the team’s most experienced leaders, also thought he should go with Scurry against Brazil. In fact, Ryan told Solo, those two had suggested the change.
Lilly and Scurry were teammates on the 1999 team that won the World Cup. Wambach didn’t arrive until a couple of years later, but she “had allied herself with the ’99ers,” Solo writes, and “was so tight with them you would have thought she had stripped off her own jersey along with them in the Rose Bowl.”
Solo writes that when she confronted Lilly to ask why she’d lobbied for a change in goal, “Lil looked shocked by my question, as though she never expected Greg to reveal their private conversation.” Lilly, clearly trying to avoid the confrontation, stammered and said “she didn’t think it mattered who was in goal.”
That would be like a centerfielder saying it doesn’t matter who the starting pitcher is.
Solo told Lilly, “I’ve lost every ounce of respect I’ve had for you.”
Then she left to go look for Wambach.
When she found her and asked, “How could you turn your back on me?” Wambach at least was honest: “Hope, I think Bri is the better goalkeeper.”
“That shut me up,” Solo writes. “I didn’t think it was true, and I didn’t think Abby knew much about goalkeeping. But at least she … owned up to her part in the matter. I had to respect that.”
And immediately after the 4-0 loss to Brazil, Wambach found Solo to say, “Hope, I was wrong.”
That candor is one reason why the two superstars still get along. They aren’t close friends off the field, but since 2007, there’s never been a public hint of friction between Wambach and Solo.
The same with Christie Rampone.
After Solo’s outburst in the press, she was called to a meeting with team elders: Lilly and Wambach, Boxx and Scurry, Kate Margraf and Rampone.
According to Solo, Margraf’s first words to her were, “I can’t even fucking look at you. Who the fuck do you think you are? I can’t even be in the same room with you.” Margraf stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind her. (Margraf is now a color commentator who has done women’s soccer games for ESPN, NBC, and Fox. If you never see her interviewing Solo before or after a game, you may now know why.)
Rampone, on the other hand, took a constructive approach. “Hope,” she said, “we’ve heard your side of things. You’ve heard how we feel. So how are we going to move forward and make this better?”
Solo writes that she was profoundly grateful. “She was the only one trying to lead us through the mess, to cut through the harsh words and angry feelings.”
All of her friends on the team abandoned her, she writes, except one: Carli Lloyd, who offered emotional support and forgiveness. (Again, it’s no coincidence that Lloyd and Solo are close still.)
After the 2008 Olympics, Scurry hung around, but not for long. It was obvious that the torch had passed. Her last appearance for the United States was against South Korea on Nov. 5, 2008.
The following March, she signed with the Washington Freedom of Women’s Professional Soccer, a league that was struggling financially. (It would fold after its 2011 season.)
Early in the 2010 season, Scurry sustained a season-ending injury, and on Sept. 8 of that year, one day after her 39th birthday, she announced her retirement.
There’s no indication that Solo and Scurry ever patched things up — at least not completely. I’ve looked, and I don’t find an interview with either of them in which they say they’re friends, or even friendly today.
Solo reacted bitterly last year when Scurry was named to the All-Time Best XI instead of her. She took to Twitter to lash out at Julie Foudy, another ’99er. A few days before the list was announced, Foudy appeared on ESPN’s Sportscenter and gave her picks for all-time best at each position. Foudy said the nod at goalkeeper should go to Scurry. (When Foudy’s predictions turned out to match almost exactly what the 56-member selection committee decided, Solo was silent.)
Less than two months after Ryan was let go, he was hired as the women’s soccer coach at the University of Michigan. He’s still there. His teams have a combined record of 63-41-20, and under him, the Wolverines have shown impressive progress. In his first year, they were 4-10-5. Last year, they were 18-4-1 and advanced to the round of eight in the NCAA tournament before losing 2-1 to Virginia, a national powerhouse.
In Solo’s memoir, she tells of running into Ryan at a 2008 game between Michigan and Arizona State University. ASU’s coach, a friend of a friend, had asked Solo to make an appearance, meet with the team, sign autographs for fans and so forth, and she agreed.
After the game, she writes, she and a friend went over to the Michigan sideline to say hello to Ryan. “I could afford to be gracious,” she says, and besides, “it would have been awkward to avoid him.”
Ryan, she says, refused to return her greeting or shake her friend’s hand.
“Greg just glared at us,” she writes, “bitter and small-minded” as ever.