For USA, Hope springs eternal
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According to many experts, goalkeeping is one of the positions where the women’s game simply does not have the requisite quality. However, any fans witnessing the recent performances of USA goalkeeper Hope Solo would be well equipped to refute this dubious theory. Indeed so commanding was Solo's performance in her country’s dramatic penalty shoot-out victory over Brazil in the quarter-final of the FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011™ that she was voted Player of the Match

Her impressive all-round display included a penalty save in normal time – although the kick was eventually retaken and scored – and some spectacular stops from Cristiane, Rosana, Fabiana and Marta. With the teams tied at 2-2 after extra time, she then went on to play a starring role in the ensuing shoot-out, parrying Daiane’s spot kick to help the Stars and Stripes into the semi-finals of the tournament.

“She’s a great keeper – she’s done really well here. She’s very solid, and comfortable with the ball at her feet too. We could almost call her our fifth defender,” said the coach of the USA women’s team, Pia Sundhage, who has been keen to emphasise the work that backroom colleague Paul Rogers has done with the American No1.

Solo is in complete agreement with those sentiments. “He’s given a lot to the team, and being one of the few men that works with us, he’s provided us with a different perspective. He’s tough and demanding, but he’s the best goalkeeping coach that I’ve ever trained with,” she explained, adding, “He’s great with all the tiny details, and prepares us physically, technically and tactically. I’m specifically focusing on him because I respect him and have learned so much from him.”

This improved knowledge of the game and plain hard work have propelled the 29-year-old shot-stopper into the FIFA Women’s World Cup spotlight once again, four years after her good displays at China 2007 were marred by a decision to publicly criticise then national coach Greg Ryan for having dropped her to the bench for USA’s semi-final with Brazil, a match that the Americans lost 4-0.

I feel like our country is behind us, and that now the whole world is watching us, because people realise we’ve been playing some really good football.
USA goalkeeper Hope Solo

Those statements led to a spell in the international wilderness for Solo, but the following year the newly-appointed Sundhage brought her back into the fold. “When I took charge of the team, I knew that, in order to win games, I would need a top goalkeeper, and that’s what she is. I’ve got no desire to talk about what happened in 2007. I asked the girls not to necessarily forget, but to forgive, and to try to move forward as a group. This adventure is not about one player; what’s important is the team,” explained the Swedish-born tactician.

“What happened in 2007 is now in the past, and I don’t want to go through that again. That year changed me a lot. It both destroyed me and rebuilt me in many ways. Now I’m back and I feel at home in this team,” said Solo in a calm, succinct manner, looking her questioner directly in the eyes.

Run of redemption
While her previous experience of a semi-final at this event marked the beginning of a personal ordeal for the American custodian, this time around she and her team-mates stand on the verge of history. Solo is well aware, however, that their opponents in the last four represent a tricky hurdle.

France have one of the best attacks in the world. They’ve also got some very physically imposing players. We’re certainly not going to underestimate them; we have the utmost respect and admiration for the great performances they’ve put in at this tournament,” she pointed out. “It’s going to be a very tough match – anything could happen,” added the keeper who plays her club football for the Florida-based magicJack club.

From her comments, it is possible that Solo has been indulging in some statistical analysis of this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup. France happen to be the team with the highest number of shots in the competition: 80, 32 of which have been on target. When the fact that the United States have just four fewer attempts is taken into account, the chances of an entertaining encounter look good, at least on paper.

Goalkeepers do not tend to have a problem with the concept of entertainment, as long as it does not take place at their end of the pitch, of course. “Actually, I’m not too concerned about any particular French player. I trust in my team. I know that we’ll be very focused, and that we’ll do what it takes to beat a very attack-minded side that’s having an amazing World Cup,” said the Richland-born player.

For Solo, the road to victory lies in repeating the positive aspects of the Brazil game: “We went forward as a unit, we were solid, we didn’t lose our concentration, and we gave everything we had. It’s given us lots of confidence for the challenges that lie ahead.”

The historic and tumultuous triumph versus the Brazilians actually had an effect on the Americans’ pre-match preparations, she revealed.

“After the game I was emotional and exhausted. We talked for hours about what happened; everyone had a story to tell. The next morning we were still talking about it. It probably  took us a full day to  get it out of our systems, but as we arrived in Dusseldorf on Monday evening, just seeing a new city and a new stadium changed our mindsets. We’ve put all the euphoria behind us now and are fully prepared for the demands of the France match,” Solo explained.

“I feel like our country is behind us, and that now the whole world is watching us, because people realise we’ve been playing some really good football. My main aim is to keep doing well here. We came to Germany to take part in the Final. I believe anything is possible,” she concluded with an air of confidence. Now more of a team player than ever, she is well aware that attaining that goal will be much more than a solo mission.