JOHANNESBURG (AP) – Five years ago, Hope Solo's national team career looked like it was over.
The mouthy, make-up wearing keeper had been yanked by then-national team manager Greg Ryan for the semifinal match of the 2007 Women's World Cup against Brazil. Backup Brianna Scurry took the net -- and the nats subsequently lost the game 4-0.
An angry Solo unloaded to a Canadian questioner after the match, saying, "There's no doubt in my mind I would have made those saves. And the fact of the matter is it's not 2004 anymore. It's not 2004. It's 2007."
These comments weren't unusual in the world of big time pro sports -- but for a famously insular tight-knit women's team they were beyond the pale. They made international headlines, and put Solo right in the middle of controversy.
Whether Solo knew that television cameras were rolling is unknown. What isn't, however, is that she never backed away from what she said, only clarifying that the comments were not meant as criticism of Scurry. Said Solo in a post on her website the next day: "I stand strong in everything I said...[but] I would never throw such a low blow [at a teammate.]"
Retribution was swift: in what was described at the time by Kristine Lilly as a "group decision," the team responded by exiling Solo. Ryan benched her for the third-place match and her fellow players ostracized her. She even flew home alone after the end of the tournament.
Moreover, Solo's personal life was in turmoil. Her father, a sometimes-homeless Vietnam veteran had passed away before the World Cup and her best friend had been killed after being hit by a car. Solo was in the wilderness, without the parent who had taught her to love sports, and without the support of team she had known for eight long years.
Fast forward to now: Solo is not only the unquestioned starter for the USA, but perhaps the biggest star in the sport. In the past 12 months, she's gone from being "just" an irreplaceable part of the team to a full-blown celebrity.
On the field, she stopped a critical penalty kick against Brazil and had two shutouts in the 2011 Women's World Cup en route to the USA's silver medal performance. Off the field, she became just the third female soccer player to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated. She has also appeared in the buff on the cover and inside ESPN The Magazine's annual "Body Issue," and played pitch-woman for countless products.
Standard stuff, perhaps, for a popular athlete. Hardly ordinary for a female soccer player: only Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain have close to her recognition, and the latter is best known for showing off her sports bra. (Sadly, fewer remember why Chastain doffed her top -- it was after she sunk a penalty kick at the Rose Bowl to win the 1999 World Cup on American soil.)
Still, it was Solo's fall appearance on "Dancing With the Stars" that took her into the pop culture stratosphere. As she reached the semifinals of the televised dance competition she was introduced herself to millions of people who've never watched a women's game in their lives.
Even then, the show came with costs: Solo was repeatedly criticized by the judges for being "too muscular," and saw unflattering stories about her on-set behavior leaked to the tabloids. (In characteristic fashion, she fired back at the show after her elimination.)
But the upside is enormous. Solo is the first player since Hamm to transcend her sport. She's now in the curious position of being famous for being famous. That is heady stuff for woman from small-town Washington.
How did Solo get here? The road back started when Ryan's contract wasn't renewed by US Soccer and Pia Sundhage took over the reins. Recognizing that Solo was by far the best keeper she had available, Sundhage brought Solo back into camp as the team began prep for the 2008 Olympics.
Thus began a painful healing process -- it wasn't an easy time for Solo. Certain players on the team weren't eager to embrace a player they felt had betrayed the team's ethos. Solo chose to shut up and let her work on the field do the talking.
The result was seen in the Olympic gold medal run in Beijing, three shutouts and an all-tournament match against Brazil in the final. Her acrobatic saves led the Americans to a 1-0 overtime win against a team renowned for attacking, led by the world's top female striker, Marta.
That sparked a long run in WPS, where she has featured for three teams, winning goalkeeper of the year accolades in 2009 with the now defunct St. Louis franchise.
Now 30, Solo is preparing for what may be her last major tournament with the national team. She is without a team after WPS forcibly shuttered magicJack in Florida and it is unclear whether or not she will play professionally before the 2012 London Games get under way.
Her penchant for opinionated comments hasn't abated: during her tenure in the league she was fined for criticizing both the league and the officials. She was embroiled in a controversy after she accused Boston Breakers' fans of racist chanting on her Twitter feed. After her departure from "Dancing," she told a Seattle TV station that the show had showcased "her bad side," and that the judges had "wanted her off from Day One."
Reality TV's loss is the Americans' gain.
With Solo in the net this coming Friday, the Yanks have a real chance to get to the final game of Olympic qualifying and make the trip to London. For when Solo plays, the Americans are one of the best teams in the world.
Without Solo, the team struggles -- as we saw in 2010, when the Americans, minus an injured Solo, were forced into a play-in round against Italy merely to qualify for the World Cup.
Solo gets her next chance to prove her worth on the tricky turf fields in Vancouver, where the slick surface will test all the goalkeepers.
Don't be shocked if the Americans roll as expected and the brash Solo backs up all her swagger.