Updated: August 9, 2012 at 12:00 am
LONDON – Mana Iwabuchi had everything going her way. After swiping the ball from Christie Rampone, she had a clear view of back of the net. Japan looked prepared to erase America’s one-goal lead.
Hope Solo stood in her way. America’s acrobatic, abrasive goaltender needed to save the night for her country.
And that’s exactly what she did.
America’s 2-1 victory over Japan in the Olympic gold medal game essentially ended after Iwabuchi’s and Solo’s showdown in the 83rd minute.
As Iwabuchi prepared to shoot, Solo appeared to have no chance. But she refused to budge, waiting for Iwabuchi to make the first move. When Iwabuchi launched a surgically precise shot to the far post, Solo lunged, grazing the ball just enough with her left hand.
This was a fantastic night for soccer. Slightly more than 80,000 fans jammed into Wembley, London’s soccer palace, to watch a classic. Japan easily could have won this game if not for Solo’s repeated robberies. She made a leaping touch to save Yuki Ogimi’s head shot in the 17th minute and courageously threw her body into an array of other shots.
All night, Japan played with a poised, surging style. Solo was constantly under attack, and Japan might have scored four or five goals if not for her brilliance and a little help from the post and crossbar, always a goalie’s best friend and a shooter’s most vile enemy.
Solo is not a cuddly type. She fired off menacing tweets in the direction of Brandi Chastain last month after the U.S. great had the gall to criticize the current American team. “Get more educated,” Solo commanded Chastain, who is only one of the finest American players ever.
This is nothing new for Solo. She’s aggressive in interview sessions, returning curt, sarcastic answers to questions she doesn’t deem wise enough for her tastes.
After the victory, coach Pia Sundhage talked about Solo’s off-the-field antics.
“Hope Solo says a lot of things on Twitter,” Sundhage said.
“I don’t follow her.”
This remark drew a few laughs, which seemed to please Sundhage.
“But what matters is what kind of team player she is and her performance.”
Well said, coach. Solo’s bold, at times rude style defines her. This approach is part of what lifts her to the status of superlative goalie. She’s defiant at all times, ready to attack. This is the perfect approach when she stands in front of America’s net, ready to take on the world.
She understands the minds of strikers. She understands because that’s once who she was. Solo scored 109 goals in high school, twice earning Parade All American honors before making an abrupt career change at the University of Washington.
You see Solo’s understanding of her foes at critical moments in the game. As Iwabuchi approached the net, and a possible tie, Solo had a strong idea of what she would do because this once was her role. She used to prey on helpless goaltenders.
Solo’s brilliance was the difference in this game. Japan and the United States are essentially even. The teams delivered a classic in the finals of last summer’s World Cup, when Japan roared from behind to drop the Americans.
As Iwabuchi dribbled toward Solo, the Americans were in danger of throwing it all away once again. Rampone had stumbled into an inexplicable error, leaving her team in grave peril.
Someone had to come to the rescue.
And in a great American sports moment, that’s exactly what Hope Solo did.