Ryan gambles on keeper change
© AFP

China 2007 has not been short on surprise selection choices but none have resulted in as many raised eyebrows as Greg Ryan's decision to replace Hope Solo with Briana Scurry in goal for Thursday's semi-final with Brazil.

Ryan's confirmation of his shock move certainly sparked something of a frenzy in Hangzhou on the eve of the game, and left the US coach facing a barrage of questions on the implications of dropping his erstwhile No1. The initial sense of bemusement was understandable. Solo has, after all, kept a clean sheet in each of her last three matches at this tournament and, aside from a isolated aberration in her opening match against Korea DPR, has proved among the most assured goalkeepers on show.

Ryan was at great pains, however, to stress that this remarkably timed change should not be interpreted as a slight on Solo, but rather as a tribute to the woman replacing her. And in his defence, Scurry is hardly your average deputy. Not many back-up goalkeepers, certainly, can call upon experience of three previous FIFA Women's World Cups, all as first choice, not to mention 162 full internationals and gold medals from both this competition and the Olympic Games of 1996 and 2004.

Scurry also just happens to be one of the best instinctive shot-stoppers in the business and it is this key attribute that, according to her coach, won her the nod for facing Marta, Cristiane and Co. "I've never looked at Bri simply as a back-up," Ryan insisted. "In terms of her ability to make saves on long-range shots, tipping them away, and reflex saves to shots from inside the penalty box, I've just never seen a goalkeeper as good at that - or a team who creates as many of those situations as Brazil.

"Many months back, I sat down with Bri and told her I thought she was the best match-up for certain teams we could play in the World Cup - and Brazil were one of those teams. You only have to look back to when we played Brazil in June - or even watch her training day in, day out - to understand why we've made this decision. Bri has beaten Brazil the last two times we've played them and I think she has tremendous confidence stepping out to face them again."

'A real kinship'
The occasion is certainly highly unlikely to faze a keeper who, on 10 July 1999, famously paved the way for Brandi Chastain's iconic FIFA Women's World Cup-winning penalty by saving from China's Liu Ying. Indeed, while she has been forced to play second fiddle to Solo of late, the veteran Atlanta Beat keeper told FIFA.com that it with was a sense of calm expectancy that she had been waiting for Ryan's call to come.

"I have been waiting for this, yes," she admitted. "I've been training really hard, kept focused, and now I'm just really looking forward to the game. For whatever reason, it seems that Brazil are a team that I just seem to do well against. I wasn't looking at the results thinking, 'If this happens and they beat them, I'll be in'. I honestly just wanted my team to make it through. But when that happened and it turned out the semi was going to be against Brazil, yeah, I had a good feeling it might be me who got the shout to play."

One player's delight, of course, invariably makes for another's misery, and Ryan conceded that Solo had been left disappointed by his decision. "I'd wonder what was wrong with her if she wasn't," he said. However, while the US coach also refused to commit to reinstating the 26-year-old for the final should his team qualify, Scurry insists that the relationship between the two rivals themselves is sure to remain rock-solid. "No matter what happens, Hope and I will be fine," she said. "Apart from the usual 'goalkeeper bond', the two of us both lost our fathers fairly recently, so that's forged a real kinship between us."

As for Ryan, he concluded by telling those who see his switching of goalkeepers as an unnecessary gamble that his conscience will be clear regardless of the game's outcome. "As a coach," he said, "I've always just asked myself, 'What can I do to give my team the best chance to win the next game?' I think I've done that here and if it turns out to be a mistake, I can live with that because I believe in my heart that Bri is the goalkeeper best able to help us beat Brazil."

The world will now wait to discover whether Ryan was right to heed his heart's call.