The Bad Girl of Women’s Soccer
Why Hope Solo—loudmouth, showboat, jerk—may be the best thing that’s ever happened to her sport
Good girls wear pink, which is why Hope Solo won’t. Earlier this year, as the new Women’s Professional Soccer league prepared to kick off its inaugural season, it unveiled the uniforms Puma had designed for the league’s seven teams. Solo, who plays goalie for the St. Louis Athletica, wasn’t impressed. “They go and make this padded goalkeeper jersey and it’s hot pink—it just looks girly, it looks juvenile, it doesn’t look professional,” she told me one afternoon as we sat on a bench in an empty Harvard Stadium, where her team had just finished practicing for its game the next day against the Boston Breakers. “And so I said, ‘There’s no way in hell I’m wearing this.’”
Such defiant—some might say diva-ish—behavior is nothing new for Solo. At the 2007 World Cup in China, she started for the U.S., until the coach benched her for a semifinal match against Brazil, which the team lost, 4–0. After the game, Solo pointedly told a reporter, “There’s no doubt in my mind I would have made those saves.” The team subsequently banished her from its consolation match—and from its flight home. The next year, at the Beijing Olympics, under a new coach, Solo found some redemption by leading the U.S. to a gold medal. But she was criticized as a showboat for her victory prance around the field with an enormous fake gold medal dangling from her neck and a cell phone pressed to her ear. “No one’s neutral about Hope Solo,” says Angela Tavares, a writer for the soccer Web site Goal.com. “They either love her or hate her.”
But Solo’s polarizing persona is what makes her so crucial to the new league’s fortunes. The last professional women’s soccer league in the U.S., the Women’s United Soccer Association, lasted only three seasons—largely because it lacked edge. “The WUSA sort of had a focus on preteen, ponytailed girls who aspired to play soccer someday, and so their messaging was around ‘cause marketing’: ‘This league is something girls deserve to have, and as a fan you ought to support this,’” says Tonya Antonucci, a former Yahoo executive and the new league’s commissioner. “We’re presenting an environment that’s not about babysitting kids but is an opportunity to watch the best and be entertained by the best.”
In most professional sports, a large measure of that entertainment typically comes from booing, or at least rooting against, a villainous athlete. The best players in men’s sports have legions of admirers and detractors, whether it’s Kobe Bryant in basketball or Terrell Owens in football. Alas, many of the stars of women’s soccer have been too bland (at least in their public personas) to inspire much in the way of strong feelings, especially negative ones. Could anyone, for instance, dislike Mia Hamm?
Solo doesn’t have that problem. Indeed, her outburst at the World Cup, which drew the attention of ESPN and sports-talk radio, was one of the rare instances when women’s soccer entered the country’s broader sports discussion. Although Solo is considered by some to be the best goalkeeper in the world, it’s her off-field as much as her on-field reputation that has garnered her endorsement deals from Nike and VitaminWater. “She’s one of the few women players in America that has marketing value right now,” says Peter Wilt, the president of the Chicago Red Stars. “And a large part of it is because of her opinionated nature.”
Solo relishes being known as, in her words, “that loudmouth goalkeeper”—if only because she wants to be afforded the same liberties sports fans typically grant to male athletes: namely, the right to be a cocky jerk. “For some reason, people want to think that we’re girls next door, who all get along and go shopping at the mall together,” she told me. “Treat us like professional athletes.”
At the game the next night, it seemed that Solo was a long way from getting her wish. Most of the 5,000 or so fans who came to Harvard Stadium seemed to be the very same preteen ponytailed girls and glassy-eyed parents who had led the WUSA to its ruin. But one small sign augured well: a group of 30 or 40 Breakers fans—all adults, some apparently well-lubricated—who banged on drums and kept up a raucous stream of chants: “We hate So-lo,” they sang. “So-lo sucks!” The object of their scorn never acknowledged the jeers, but she must have secretly appreciated them. After all, as promised, Solo’s jersey that night wasn’t pink; it was red—like a matador’s cape.