When a rebel reaps rewards

When a rebel reaps rewards

When a rebel reaps rewards

Hope Solo has got a mouth on her. She also has a gold medal hanging from her neck.
In an Olympic championship showdown between fierce rivals from the United States and Japan, all that separated the world’s two best female soccer teams was the most clutch goalkeeper on the planet.

In a game for the ages played at classic Wembley Stadium with 80,000 fans creating a sweet cacophony in two distinctly different languages, America won 2-1.

Sometimes, however, it appeared Solo was defending US soccer honour all by herself.
“You can’t go without saying that Hope Solo saved the day about five times,” US forward Abby Wambach declared after her team-mates avenged a painful defeat to Japan at last year’s World Cup.

Is Solo arrogant? Oh, yeah. Does she love the mirror as much as the spotlight? True. Does she care what you think? Next question.

“I don’t care how I’m seen. I’m myself,” Solo said. “I don’t care how people perceive me. I am who I am. And I’m here to win.”

Know what scares people? Solo doesn’t play by the rules of etiquette that have governed female sports since the time when women perspired rather than sweat. For anybody who has a problem with Solo, whether it is US soccer legend Brandi Chastain or sentimental folks who think female athletes should be lace and tears instead of nails and smirks, here’s the message: You can kiss Solo’s gold medal.

Solo is a rebel, if only because she pushes sports for women into the 21st century, where there’s no shame in saving the best quotes for the book deal, ruffling feathers or eating up publicity with a salad fork. There is an unmistakable tension that runs through the living history of US soccer, between the era of the pioneering superheroes named Mia Hamm or Chastain and the current players constantly burdened by the comparison. On the eve of the Olympic final against Japan, the chance for redemption was so raw, the only way Team USA seemed to be able to talk about the challenge was through jaws clenched by tension.

You got the feeling this team was not only competing against Japan, but fighting the lingering, glorious image of Chastain ripping off her jersey to celebrate a World Cup victory 13 years in the past.

“Please don’t misinterpret and think I’m saying we played good soccer and they don’t. They’re sensitive to that idea, and I am too,” Chastain said. Solo is sensitive? “I said they,” Chastain repeated, with a laugh.

The burden of staying No 1 in the world weighs on Team USA led by Wambach. Nothing is ever going to beat the first giddy rise to power. But maybe, just maybe, the end-to-end mayhem of this championship match against Japan, when the Americans were often outplayed but refused to lose, will begin writing legends in red, white and blue for Solo and Carli Lloyd, who scored both US goals.

“There are always going to be comparisons to the Yankees of the 1950s. That’s always going to exist,” Chastain said. “Having never won a World Cup, this group will be compared to 1999. That’s natural. Whether it makes any sense? I don’t think so, because we’re never going to play a game against each other. So who knows?” To beat Japan, the US needed a little luck, as when an obvious hand ball in the box by Tobin Heath went undetected.

The Americans needed grit, with Wambach pounding her chest and shouting at team-mates that it was all about heart. But, most of all, they needed Solo, who did not bat an eye when defender Christie Rampone committed a ghastly turnover in the 83rd minute, only to be bailed out when her keeper made a leaping save of a wicked shot by Mana Iwabuchi. “It’s not always pretty,” Solo said. “I don’t know when I’m going to be asked to step up, whether it’s the first game or the last game. Who knows? I think I play well under pressure. But a lot of great players do.

“Know what? US soccer has never known a greater big-game player than Solo.
Deal with it. Solo doesn’t say please. All she does is win.