(NOTE: This was mostly written before Friday’s quarterfinal victory over China. But since Abby Wambach only played in the last four minutes of that game, and her chief contribution was to drop an f-bomb that was clearly audible on the Fox network broadcast, nothing has changed.)
Six months ago, who would have guessed that Hope Solo would be a model citizen during the World Cup (at least so far), and that Abby Wambach — Abby Wambach — would be the one creating distractions for her team?
After five matches, Solo leads the World Cup with 11 saves. She has played every minute, and has given up just one goal.
Wambach leads the tournament in dopey public statements. These awkward missteps, together with her sub-par performance, have been sad to witness.
My friend Steve Davis, writing for WorldSoccerTalk.com, says it would be a shame if the lasting memories that some fans carried of Wambach’s spectacular career were those formed during this, her last World Cup.
Far worse, she suggested that she might have tried harder to get on those balls — might have played “way more carefree” — if this World Cup were being played on grass.
That prompted this response from former U.S. defender Alexi Lalas, now a Fox analyst, who spoke for millions of American fans:
Before Wambach could clean up that mess, she created a new, bigger one, and stepped in it with both feet.
She suggested that Frappart issued yellow cards to Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday because she knew they already had one each, and that a second yellow would knock them out of Friday’s quarterfinal showdown with China.
“I don’t know if they were yellows,” she said. “It seemed like she was purposefully giving those yellows to maybe players that she knew were sitting on yellows. I don’t know if that was just a psychological thing. Who knows? Who knows?
The next morning, Wambach had to go television to “clarify” her comments.
She admitted that she had nothing on which to base her insulting accusation, and she apologized publicly to Frappart.
FIFA issued a warning to Wambach — the equivalent of a yellow card for nitwittedness.
Meanwhile, the only thing Hope Solo has done is come to work every day and excel at her job. The enfant terrible, the volatile wild child, has kept her eyes open and her mouth shut.
When ESPN’s Outside the Lines, on the eve of the World Cup’s opening, tried to contrive a new Solo controversy with an overhyped, one-sided “exposé” about her domestic-violence arrest last summer, she refused to get dragged into the fray.
When ESPN reclamation project Keith Olbermann tried to fan the flames, harrumphing that Solo must be sent packing IMMEDIATELY, based on the OTL revelations — she was drunk, if you can believe that, and when the cops arrested her, she was belligerent — she refused to get dragged into the fray.
When a member of the U.S. Senate (who seems like a self-righteous popinjay even by that chamber’s soaring standards) wrote to U.S. Soccer to demand that it “conduct a thorough investigation” of the domestic violence charges, which were dismissed six months ago. Solo refused to get dragged into the fray.
The senator thinks Solo should be benched, even though she was found guilty of nothing — even though the misdemeanor charges were thrown out by a judge — because prosecutors appealed that dismissal, and a hearing is scheduled in September.
“Hope Solo continuing to play goalie for Team USA, just months before she will appear in court to face domestic violence charges, raises troubling questions about the state of the game,” the senator wrote.
The U.S. team has not acted on his lineup recommendation.
Coming into the World Cup, many U.S. fans worried that Solo would do or say something reckless and harm the team. It was a worry shared by coach Jill Ellis, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, major sponsors like Heineken, Nationwide, Coca-Cola and Nike — and, if truth be told, Solo’s teammates.
Hell, you’d have to be an idiot not to be concerned. Her record of poorly timed public screwups is a lengthy one.
• It starts, of course, with the 2007 World Cup:
• Then there was this flurry of Twitter slaps at Brandi Chastain during the 2012 Olympics.
Chastain, working as an NBC analyst, had the nerve to do her job: She said during a broadcast that the U.S. defense was less than perfect.
Solo exploded. (Her former English teachers must have been so proud.)
• There was her failed drug test before the 2012 Olympics.
• There was her unvarnished memoir, which came out right after the 2012 Games. And Solo’s follow-up revelation that she wanted to publish the book before the Olympics, to boost sales, but was told by coach Pia Sundhage that she’d be thrown off the team if she didn’t wait.
• There was the 2013 story in ESPN The Magazine about all the late-night pole-vaulting that takes place in the Olympic Village. It quoted Solo as saying, “There’s a lot of sex going on. … I’ve seen people having sex right out in the open. On the grass, between buildings, people are getting down and dirty.”
Not only that, “I may have snuck a celebrity back to my room without anybody knowing, and snuck him back out. But that’s my Olympic secret.”
Not only that, “When we were done partying, we got out of our nice dresses, got back into our stadium coats and, at 7 a.m. with no sleep, went on the Today show drunk.”
• There were her tweets in December 2013 calling out Julie Foudy because Foudy, having been invited to participate in a U.S. Soccer poll to name the U.S. Team’s All-Time Best XI, picked Briana Scurry, not Hope Solo, as goalkeeper.
(Solo’s criticism turned out to be as ignorant as it was insulting. Foudy’s ballot almost perfectly matched the all-time best team. She got 10 of the 11 right. Her one error: She didn’t put herself on the team, but 40 of the 56 voters did.)
• There was the 911 call in November of 2012 about a brawl at a party attended by Solo and her then-fiance, Jerramy Stevens, a former tight end in the National Football League with his own long history of trouble..
To this day, what happened at the party isn’t clear. According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the person who called 911 was Solo’s brother Marcus. When the police arrived, Marcus Solo had blood on his forehead and knees, and a freshly bruised eye.
As the officers questioned him outside, Hope Solo emerged from the home and told her brother to keep his yap shut. She was drunk and had a cut on her elbow.
The officers went inside, where they found more blood, on the kitchen floor. Also on the kitchen floor was a woman who had injured her hip.
They found Stevens on the floor of an upstairs bedroom. They thought he was hiding. He said he’d fallen asleep. He had blood on his cheek and shirt, and no explanation for how it had gotten there.
Stevens was arrested. Solo was not. He was released the next day.
She picked him up at the jail in a rented black Mercedes, and they immediately drove to get married.
And then, of course, atop all of that, came the Golden Age of Solo Meltdowns, the period from her arrest late last June until her 30-day suspension in January.
Solo sunk to new depths of public embarrassment.
Her domestic violence case played out in the courts and, to some degree, in the press through the summer, and into the fall.
This happened to coincide with a time when the National Football League was being forced to confront its own longstanding problems involving domestic violence, and some of the NFL’s foul-smelling muck would splash onto Solo.
The Ray Rice fiasco made Roger Goodell look foolish and weak, an image that an NFL commissioner can ill-afford, especially if, as in this case, it was deserved.
Goodell would later acknowledge that he “got it wrong” when he suspended Rice for just two games after the running back was arrested on a domestic violence charge. The lenient sentence brought howls from women’s advocates, but the NFL had never really cared what they thought, and the howls would have died down quickly enough if only TMZ hadn’t gotten its mitts on that elevator surveillance video.
Now Goodell really looked like a dope. To show the world otherwise, he brought the hammer down on Rice and other NFL stars who picked a really bad year to get caught smacking their wives, girlfriends, or kids around.
The NFL dramas magnified a hundredfold the attention on Solo’s case.
Let’s be honest: If you’re reading this blog, or even know it exists, you’re probably a fan of women’s soccer, and I applaud your good taste.
But most Americans couldn’t name four players on the U.S. team if you spotted them Alex Morgan.
And in August and September of 2014, with fans’ thoughts turning eagerly to football, very few people were monitoring the status of the misdemeanor criminal complaint on file against Solo in Kirkland, Wash. Very few knew or cared whether Solo was or was not playing for the national team while that case was pending.
Brennan’s piece was first; Macur’s was more forceful. Essentially, they made the same argument: If Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy were drawing suspensions from the NFL over allegations of domestic violence, it was wrong for U.S.Soccer to let Solo keep playing.
I maintain, and did at the time, that these columnists, however well-intentioned, did an injustice to Solo by building their arguments on a fundamentally flawed premise: That there was an equivalence between her actions and those of her hulking NFL counterparts.
Getting tanked up and duking it out with her lumbering 17-year-old nephew was hardly prudent. But it’s silly to say that what Solo did was a crime on a par with a 200-pound pro football player punching his fiance in the face so hard that he knocked her out cold.
Macur’s column acknowledged the distinction, then immediately dismissed it as unimportant.
“One can argue the differences between an NFL player punching his soon-to-be wife and a soccer star brawling with her family,” she wrote, “but it is indisputable that both qualify as domestic violence.”
That’s like saying a cherry bomb is the same as a car bomb because they’re both bombs.
I realize, however, that no one gives a rat’s ass what I think.
Macur and Brennan, on the other hand, are closely read by hundreds of thousands of people, including other sports writers across the country, and their take on Solo was soon being parroted on the air, on the Internet, and in print.
People who didn’t know a soccer ball from a bocce ball suddenly had opinions about how U.S. Soccer should be handling the Solo affair.
The consensus was: She should be forcibly hauled off the pitch, bound in thick chains, and never allowed to return — at least, not before Team USA was made to play the World Cup with a backup goalkeeper.
Because she’s “just like Ray Rice.”
By January, things were finally looking up for Solo. The criminal case against her was crumbling, mostly because the state’s chief witnesses, Solo’s half-sister and nephew, turned out to be flaky.
They changed their stories. They contradicted one another. They admitted that they had destroyed physical evidence.
They refused to answer certain questions from Solo’s lawyer.
When they failed to show up for court-ordered depositions, the judge had no choice but to dismiss the charges. That happened on Jan. 13, 2015, one week before Solo’s trial was to begin.
By the way, the half-sister, Teresa Obert, was the star of the Outside The Lines story, the one that aired right before the World Cup.
Outside the Lines built its case that Solo was a liar and a brute and a manipulative phony and a combative drunk and a really lousy aunt around an exclusive interview with Obert. As scoops go, this was a pretty good one. It was the first time she’d spoke publicly about what happened on the night of Solo’s arrest.
Naturally, the show’s producers wanted to present her as someone candid and credible. That meant not tugging too hard at her story, because if they did, the holes and thin spots might become apparent.
So instead, ESPN dressed her in a soft lavender cowl-neck sweater, seated her in front of tasteful white kitchen cabinetry, and lobbed gentle questions her way.
Whatever occurred that night, it’s clear from the record that there are discrepancies between Solo’s versions and those offered by Obert her son. It’s clear that there are differences between Obert’s account and her son’s, and differences between what she told police that night and what she later claimed to recollect.
It’s also clear that was physical aggression on both sides. The nephew, for example, acknowledged hitting Solo over the head with a broom handle. He says it was in self-defense. Solo says it was assault.
The odds are slim indeed that any one of the three versions is completely, perfectly accurate, and honest — the real story of what took place. Solo has her motives for wanting to bend the facts, and so do her relatives. The truth, if it’s found at all, will most likely be found in the shadows that separate the darting, flickering, refracted narratives.
The dismissal of the criminal case meant that for the first time in almost seven months, the clouds had lifted for Hope Solo.
She made sure the sunshine didn’t last long.
Less than a week later, while Solo was in training with the U.S. team in Southern California, she and her husband decided to take a U.S. Soccer van for a late-night joyride.
Stevens was driving. It was 1:30 in the morning. He forgot to turn the headlights on. He was drunk.
It gets worse.
The episode was first reported by TMZ.
That’s how the U.S. team first learned of it. Solo didn’t bother to tell her teammates and coaches, the people who had stood by her for months, while so many on the outside were warning that she was a ticking time-bomb.
Since rejoining the U.S. team, Solo has acknowledged that she’s “been seeing a therapist and dealing with a lot of my issues, and finally addressing all the pain and anger that was inside of me.”
She has never specified the nature of this therapy; more to the point, she’s never said publicly whether she’s undergone counseling for alcohol abuse.
Solo has every right in the world not to answer, but the question is not an inappropriate one. A search for “Hope Solo” and “intoxicated” returns a good many more hits than, say, “Whitney Engen” and “intoxicated.” Or “Amy Rodriguez” and “intoxicated.” When trouble has found Solo, it was usually hanging around waiting for her at closing time.
Her husband only recently acknowledged his own battle with booze. In the June 8 issue of ESPN The Magazine, Jerramy Stevens reveals that he checked into rehab shortly after the January escapade with the U.S. Soccer van.
“Hope and I are trying to figure out how to live life in a more positive direction,” he says.
“I’m an alcoholic. … I’d been f—ed up for 20 years, choking down what hurt me.”
The story in which he’s quoted is a terrific profile of Solo by Allison Glock. The article offers more insight into her character and her public image — two different things — than anything I’ve read, including Solo’s own memoir.
Solo wrote on her blog about meeting with her teammates before the start of her 30-day suspension.
“For the first time,” she wrote, “I’d opened up to my teammates about everything I’d been going through. I talked about how hard it had been going through the court case with my family. … I’d been trying to focus while I was on the field, but I’d been a mess emotionally and mentally, and spent most nights crying with my roommate away from the team.”
Solo tells Glock that climbing into that U.S. Soccer van and letting Stevens drive, knowing they were both drunk, was “the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.” (Which, if you read back through this blog post, is saying quite a lot.)
But it may also have been the moment that saved, if not her life, then at least her soccer career, and the United States’ hopes in this World Cup.
“If the case had affected the World Cup, I never would have been able to forgive myself,” she says, adding:
“In order for us to win, I don’t have room to be distracted.”
So, yeah. If you were going to bet on one American player to go off the rails during the World Cup, history suggests — commands — that the one to put your chip on would be Hope Solo.
But maybe that was before. People do change. Not often, but sometimes.
Maybe Solo really has figured out what’s important to her. Maybe she’s figured out what she needs to do, and what she needs to abstain from doing, to achieve what she wants.
I hope she’s turned the corner that she says she’s turned.
And not just because I want to see her to stand in the net for 180 minutes more, stomping the heart of any opponent who tries to put a ball past her.
I do want to see that.
But more than that, I hope that when the American women win the World Cup six days from today, the goalkeeper without whom they could not have done it will be truly happy.
As for her teammate, the one who in 2015 keeps walking up to microphones and saying stupid things…
Everyone who has watched the World Cup knows that Abby Wambach is having a rough time. This is her last turn on the big stage. I wish it had gone more gracefully.
There’s still time for one more Wambach moment, one chance to see her shine like a brilliant star. As she likes to tell teammates late in games that are tied, “All we need is one.”
But I hope she knows deep down that if it doesn’t happen, the referees weren’t to blame, and neither was the artificial turf.