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Sep 29, 2007

Solo's teammates leave her in the cold

During the second half of the U.S. women's soccer team's 4-0 World Cup loss to Brazil on Thursday, the camera focused on the American bench, where Hope Solo hung her head, looking anguished and frustrated before eventually looking away from the field.

Then, apparently seeing the image on a sideline TV monitor, and realizing ESPN2 was airing the momentary lapse of Solo's poker face around the world, teammate Natasha Kai nudged Solo back to reality. The goalkeeper seemed to spot the monitor herself, corrected her body language and put back on her brave public face.

Too bad Solo's teammates have since abandoned her.

Solo won't be on the field when the U.S. women play Norway for third place in the Women's World Cup consolation game Sunday (5 a.m. ET, ESPN2). Solo won't be on the bench, either. U.S. coach Greg Ryan has decided that Solo won't even dress for the game or be a part of the Americans' last stand in China.

"We have moved forward with 20 players who have stood by each other, who have battled for each other," Ryan told reporters Saturday. "And when the hard times came -- and the Brazil game was a hard time -- they stood strong. Now it's the 20 who have stuck together who will be ready to go out and compete against Norway."

So this is what happens when a woman speaks out? When she tells it like it is? When she speaks from the heart, uncensored instead of all those generic, fill-in-the-blank responses every other American athlete regurgitates and we roll our eyes at when controversy strikes?

She won't start. Won't play. And won't even get to wear the uniform.

Persona non grata in your eyes, maybe. But in mine, Hope Solo is my homegirl. And if she had just left out 12 words from her postgame rant after Ryan benched her to start Scurry in the semifinals, she'd be yours, too. The problem is, according to many, is that Solo's on-camera complaint included a dozen words -- "There's no doubt in my mind I would have made those saves" -- that seemed to indict Scurry's play. As ESPN analyst and former national team captain Julie Foudy said, Solo broke the unwritten, unspoken code of conduct to deal with any team issues privately.

Still, Solo apologized Friday for the way her comments were interpreted as a direct slight at Scurry, but she held steadfast in maintaining her criticism of Ryan's decision. That type of honest resolve is to be admired.

Ryan said he made the decision to leave Solo off the team after meeting with the team's leaders. Kristine Lilly, who is playing in her fifth World Cup, said Solo "going public has affected the whole group, and having her with us would still be a distraction."

Uh, that's fine. But while we're talking about distractions, where were you, Lilly, Stephanie Lopez and Carli Lloyd when your coach made the biggest distraction of all in deciding to bench Solo to start Scurry less than 48 hours before the semifinals? It was that move that ultimately failed miserably and had you Americans looking tired and, yes, distracted when Thursday's game kicked off.

Maybe Lilly and Abby Wambach followed some other unspoken, unwritten rules. Like sticking up for a teammate. Maybe they went behind closed doors to ask Ryan what the heck he was thinking. If you're so worried about teammates attacking teammates, how about a coach shooting a whole team in its collective foot?

Ryan's right. His players should have a say in whether Solo is to be included in the consolation game. And guys, I'm glad you spoke up. But was your conscience -- not to mention your allegiance -- as loud when your coach made the wrong decision?

Now, some observers have said they wouldn't want Solo in goal behind them if they were on the field.

And that's the problem. When you step on the field, as I did for 17 years, you put the crap behind you. You want the 10 best players possible around you. And as a sweeper, the last defender on the field, you can bet I wanted the best goalkeeper behind me. Never mind if we weren't friends off the field. If she could keep the ball out of the net better than her peers, we should be able to communicate enough on the field and play well enough together to do our jobs to the best of our abilities.

But just like Solo's beef wasn't against Scurry, my beef isn't with the naysayers. It's for Ryan making the decision to bench Solo in the first place -- and, perhaps, for her teammates not coming to her defense then. And for not sticking together through thick and thin. Because ultimately, you're by yourselves out there on the field. Eleven players. No coach.

Solo and I have never played on the field together, let alone even met one another -- although we both did play at the University of Washington -- but if she had called me off the ball on a corner kick inside the 6-yard box, you bet it wouldn't have resulted in an own goal. Oops. Now, I've spoken out of turn. Is my husband going to take away my Mia Hamm jersey now so I can't wear it Sunday as I cheer on the Americans?

Yes, as a die-hard U.S. soccer fan who once dreamed of being out there on the field, too, I'll crawl out of bed into the dark -- the games have started at 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. where I live -- and grab a cup of coffee as I settle down in front of the TV for kickoff. As always, I'll be pulling for the Americans.

More than anything, I'm dismayed that instead of focusing on what should be a fantastic final -- Germany plays some of the most deliberate, skilled soccer you'll ever see, and Brazil plays the flashiest, prettiest ball you'll witness -- the world is focused on this crap. And that in a time when we might have a woman running for president, we're telling this one to shut up and that she spoke out of turn.

But in this case, majority doesn't rule.

So go back to scrutinizing every word someone like Terrell Owens, an athlete who really puts his foot in his mouth, has to say.

But leave Hope Solo alone.

Melanie Jackson is the women's basketball editor at ESPN.com and also covered the 1999 Women's World Cup for the site. She was also a member of the U.S. U-19 national soccer team and four-year starter and captain at the University of Washington.