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Original Issue

The Goalkeeper's Dilemma

Should a U.S. World Cup player suffer for criticizing her coach?

WHEN ASKED her feelings toward ostracized teammate Hope Solo on Sunday, forward Abby Wambach broke linguistic ground with the first recorded use of the double subjunctive in Women's World Cup history. "I'd like to think that I'd like to forgive her," Wambach said.

Such shilly-shallying from a straight shooter like Wambach underscores just how conflicted the U.S. team is about their outspoken goalkeeper. And with good reason. On one hand, Solo violated the credo of the team—maybe all athletic teams—when she publicly criticized the coach and a teammate. On the other hand, she had a point.

Solo's perplexing comments came after the U.S.'s 4--0 loss to Brazil in the semifinals. Solo had been benched by coach Greg Ryan in favor of veteran Briana Scurry, and she freely shared her feelings with a camera crew from ESPN.

Solo said benching her "was the wrong decision, and I think anybody that knows anything about the game knows that." Had she stopped there, she might have escaped with a talking-to from Ryan, the U.S. coach since 2005. But she went on to take pokes at Scurry. "There's no doubt in my mind I would have made those saves," she said. "The fact of the matter is, it's not 2004 anymore.... It's 2007, and I think you have to live in the present."

Solo, to be sure, had no reason to expect a benching. After allowing a soft goal in the Americans' first game, a 2--2 draw against North Korea, she strung together shutouts in three straight must-win games; Scurry hadn't started since June. Solo had personal reasons for wanting to be on the field as well. Her father, Jeffrey, died of heart failure in June, before he was to finally see his daughter play for the national team. Solo dedicated her World Cup to him. "I don't know where it's easy for me right now, except on the field," she said shortly before leaving for China. "On the field, it's like my focus is different than it's ever been."

But Ryan showed little patience with her after her criticism was broadcast around the world on the heels of the loss to Brazil. The next day, after consulting with some of his veterans, Ryan dismissed Solo from the tournament, even disallowing her from eating with the team.

Who's right here? The coach's decision to insert the 36-year-old Scurry in the semifinal match was clearly an ill-advised move. Solo, 26, is a well-rounded keeper who does ancillary things like handling crosses and distributing the ball exceedingly well. But Ryan felt that against Brazil's snipers he needed the athleticism and shot-stopping ability of Scurry, who was 12--0 against Brazil, including a win in the 2004 Olympic final. What he failed to factor in was Scurry's rustiness. A lack of communication led to Leslie Osborne trying to clear a harmless corner kick and instead heading it past Scurry. Then Brazil's spectacular 21-year-old Marta beat Scurry with a low shot just inside the post—precisely the kind of shot Ryan put her out there to stop.

Solo, however, used equally bad strategy when she abandoned the idea of team and spoke out. By putting the spotlight on herself, Solo did Ryan a favor. The story became her postgame quotes—not his poor choice of goalkeepers.

And yet truth be told, Scurry and Solo could have played alongside each other and not stopped Brazil's last two goals. (The dazzling Brazilians outplayed Germany in the final but lost 2--0.) So what happens next? Even though Solo had disrespected a pioneer from the pre-sports-bra-celebration days, Ryan said he'd be open to Solo returning if there's "reconciliation." (Solo's absence means Scurry is the likely front-runner to start in the Olympics next year.) Solo apologized to Scurry in private and attempted to clarify her remarks on her MySpace page. After the U.S. beat Norway 4--1 in the third-place game, Scurry was asked if she accepted the apology. She gave a long answer that was many things but not a "yes." The Norway game was by far the best the U.S. played in the tournament, its first complete performance. It showed the value of teamwork—though whether the lesson registered with Solo, watching from a Shanghai hotel room, we do not know.

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