U.S. women’s soccer scores a Solo own goal [UPDATED]

Hope Solo has for years been the goalkeeper for the U.S. women’s soccer team and one of the team’s high profile stars. She’s also the bad girl of the sport and, arguably, all of American women’s sports.

At the 2007 World Cup, the U.S. coach foolishly benched Solo for a semifinal game against Brazil, which the United States lost 4-0. Solo blasted the coach and disrespected veteran U.S. keeper Briana Scurry saying, “there’s no doubt in my mind I would have made those saves.”

More recently, Solo was arrested for beating up her nephew. Charges were dismissed, but then reinstated.

It seemed likely, then, that Solo was down to her last strike when she headed to Rio for the Olympics. Reportedly, she was so warned.

Sure enough, following the games, U.S. Soccer suspended Solo for six months and terminated her contract with the women’s national team.

But what was the “strike” that got Solo called out? It consists of negative comments about the Swedish women’s team and the way it played when defeating the U.S. in a penalty kick shoot-out.

Sweden “parked the bus,” as the English say. That is, the Swedes scarcely attacked for much of the game, opting instead to defend en masse, hoping for a draw that would get them to a shootout.

After the cruel defeat (shootout losses are as devastating as anything in sports), Solo called her opponents “a bunch of cowards” for refusing to attack. She also declared that the best team had not won.

Can this really be “strike three?” By my reckoning it’s not even a foul ball. To switch metaphors, it doesn’t weigh enough even to be the straw that broke the camels back.

Followers of English soccer know that managers complain regularly when “parking the bus” foils their team. Arsene Wenger (of Arsenal) has raised this sort of whining to an art form. Mourinho (formerly of Chelsea, now of Manchester United) complains bitterly about the opposition’s tactics almost every time his team gets a poor result.

Is it pleasant? No. Is it good sportsmanship? No. But is it grounds for disciplinary action? Only in a world gone mad.

And I think we have to ask whether a male player, even one with Solo’s history, would have been disciplined if, in the moments just after a heartbreaking defeat, he criticized an opponents tactics and claimed he played for the better team. Indeed, Rich Nichols, the players’ association lawyer for the women’s team, is asking just that question.

Are women being held to a higher standard of sportsmanship than men? Is Solo being punished for not being lady like? I don’t know, but the thinness of the grounds for her suspension make this a legitimate question.

Soccer commentator Kate Markgraf, who used to play with Solo on the U.S. team, raised another legitimate question. She suggested that Solo’s suspension might be related to the fact that her goalkeeping in Rio wasn’t stellar. “This was the first tournament where you can’t say she was hands down the best keeper there,” said Markgraf. “The timing [of the suspension] is interesting.”

A final point. The popularity of a sport, especially a struggling one like women’s soccer, is linked to some extent to stars with big personalities. Trying to force female soccer stars into a mold won’t help the sport.

This doesn’t mean that serious misconduct should go unpunished. Bad mouthing teammates crosses the line. So does assaulting relatives. Criticizing an opponent’s tactics doesn’t.

Good sportsmanship should be commended, but bad sportsmanship shouldn’t be punished when it consists of nothing more than making ungracious post-game comments.

UPDATE: Steven Goff, the fine soccer writer for the Washington Post, says that Solo “got what she deserved.” “Words have consequences,” he sniffs.

But should Solo’s words should have these consequences? Goff doesn’t explain why her post-match comments are deserving of any discipline, except to state that some of her teammates “said they disagreed with or were disappointed in Solo’s characterization” of Sweden’s tactics. Goff adds that the comments “embarrassed” the U.S. program and the Olympics.

So now an athlete can be punished for post-game conduct that some teammates (who may dislike her) disagree with or find “disappointing.” The “suits” can deem such comments — standard though they are in top-level soccer — “embarrassing” and run her off the team.

Is this serious competitive sports or the safe space at an Ivy League campus?

U.S. Soccer has embarrassed itself. Soccer fans around the world are surely having a laugh. Sadly, the laugh comes at the expense of women’s soccer.

The message? Curb your competitive fire, ladies.