BUENOS AIRES – While the United States mens and womens national teams continue to endure scrutiny over their styles of play, one position that has long been heralded in the American game is goalkeeper. The United States mens program has produced some recent greats from Brad Friedel to Kasey Keller and now, the current No. 1 in net, Tim Howard.
The womens program is no different, with Briana Scurry leading the way and Hope Solo following suit as one of the worlds elite. Unfortunately, the casual fan knows Solo for her outburst in the 2007 Womens World Cup. After playing the entire tournament, then US Head Coach Greg Ryan benched Solo for the semifinals, choosing to go with the veteran Scurry. The move backfired and the Americans lost 4-0 to Brazil in embarrassing fashion. Following the game, Solo expressed her displeasure with the coaching decision and the media firestorm ensued. Many still like to talk about that, but a matured Solo on a very different US team is looked to as a leader entering the 2011 FIFA Womens World Cup in Germany, (which kicks-off Sunday). Four years removed and one head coach later, the 2007 drama has little to do with this tournament. Solo is the best goalkeeper in the world - simple as that. Shes a game-changer in a position that is typically anything but. Her acrobatic saves have salvaged results for the United States on many of occasions when the Americans may have deserved defeat. When it comes to athleticism and quick reactions in goal, there is no better. Her skills are comparable to those of Tim Howard, who frequently bails the U.S. men out of tough situations with saves that can make anyones jaw drop. A fairer comparison would be to Iker Casillas, world ahampion Spanish goalkeeper who anchors Spains star-studded cast on the mens side. Solo is to the womens game what Casillas is to the mens game: The best goalkeeper out there.
The United States women struggled over the past nine months without Solo, and while her absence was not the sole cause of the problems, it was a large factor. She is a leader in net who exudes confidence, and that translates to her teammates. Nicole Barnhart and Jillian Loyden are more than capable back-ups, but they do not bring the same persona as Solo. Shes a commanding presence on a team that needs one during some tough times. The US is still ranked No. 1 in the world, but it barely qualified for the Womens World Cup. After never losing a Womens World Cup qualifying game, the U.S. lost to Mexico in November in the semifinals of North American qualifying. That sent the U.S. into a two game playoff with Italy, which it won 2-0 on aggregate to book its ticket to Germany. That made the Americans the last of 16 teams to qualify, an all-time low for the States and a precarious position to be in for the worlds top rated side. But that, of course, all happened without Solo in goal. She had major reconstructive shoulder surgery in September and only recently returned to action in April. Since then, she has looked close to her old self, although there have been moments when Solo appeared to still be favoring that shoulder after diving for a ball.
Now she is close to 100 percent and will need to be for the United States. Sweden, North Korea and Colombia stand in the way of the United States in the group stage. If the Americans are not at the top of their game, North Korea and Sweden pose strong enough threats that the US could get into some trouble. But despite negativity surrounding the teams perceived slump, the United States - which has never finished worse than third in a Womens World Cup - looks poised for at least another semifinal run. And at that point in the knockout stage of the tournament, match-ups and good form typically give way to tactical superiority and good coaching. It is also the point at which great players single-handedly change games. For the United States, that could be star striker Abby Wambach or even 22-year-old Alex Morgan up top. But it could also be the likes of Solo making a few clutch saves to keep the US in a game it may otherwise deserve to lose (against the likes of tournament favorite Germany, for example). Solo might stand out in your memory from some off-field happenings in 2007, but she should stand out as the worlds best goalkeeper. Over the next three weeks, that should be on display in Germany. The question is whether or not it will be enough to lift the United States to its first Womens World Cup title since that magical 1999 championship on home soil. Jeff Kassouf is a freelance writer and proprietor of Equalizer Soccer who will be contributing to FOX Soccer's coverage of the 2011 Women's World Cups. He is one the co-authors of The Complete Guide to the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup.