USWNT: Citius, Altius, Cowardice

You've probably seen similar charts over the past weekend, but here are two that I think inform the conversation:

USWNT OLYMPIC RESUTS:
1996: Gold
2000: Silver
2004: Gold
2008: Gold
2012: Gold
2016: Oops

WNT WORLD CUP AND OLYMPIC CHAMPIONS:
1991: United States
1995: Norway
1996: United States
1999: United States
2000: Norway
2003: Germany
2004: United States
2007: Germany
2008: United States
2011: Japan
2012: United States
2015: United States
2016: Not the United States

It's probably a weird, meaningless mote of trivia.  But no team has followed up a World Cup with an Olympic gold the next year.  And only twice has the Olympic gold medalist followed up with a World Cup three years later.

So in retrospect, we should have expected some sort of hiccup.  But even the most complacent fan probably didn't expect this:

TIMES THE USWNT HAS FINISHED WORSE THAN THIRD IN EITHER THE OLYMPICS OR THE WORLD CUP:
2016

Before looking it up, I was all set to write "worst performance in a major tournament since the 2007 debacle."  I mean, 2007 was the women's version of 1998 - a loud, embarrassing pratfall rife with incompetence and finger-pointing.  We finished third, and not 32nd, in 2007? That ain't how I remember it.

So on paper, this was a worse result.  Which is preposterous.  Pia Sundhage isn't an idiot.  Sweden aren't chumps.  Sure, they looked like chumps last summer (Germany hammered them in the Round of 16), but one of the big lessons we've now learned is that a lot can change in a year.

There's a tendency to assume that the USWNT should always get good results...because more often than not, they do.  But there's also this tendency among mainstream sports press to assume that any USWNT defeat is a disgrace.  This wasn't.  But...well, it's hard to get past "unprecedented lack of success."  This was a different roster than last summer, but all of the changes frankly should have been upgrades.  Wambach and Boxx were at the sunset of their careers, Leroux was a big disappointment in Canada - even after the fact, it's tough to fault Jill Ellis for this roster.  In fact, unless someone goes out of their way to put themselves forward as a ridiculously convenient scapegoat -

Ah, there we go.

Jill Ellis and the USSF kept Hope Solo on after she celebrated a minor legal victory by letting her husband drive a team van while under the influence.  Sunil Gulati suspended her, but wouldn't say whether she had been ordered to undergo counseling.  (Which, in fairness, is not necessarily our business.)  Whatever Solo was asked to do, she accomplished it - and she had a fine 2015 World Cup. 

But it's silly to pretend at this point that Gulati and Ellis were making these decisions based on what would be best for Hope Solo, the human being.  If Solo wasn't one of the two or three best goalkeepers in the history of women's soccer, there's no way she gets the benefit of the doubt from her employers. 

There isn't a character clause in the USWNT.  There probably hasn't been one in any national team since Sampson dropped Harkes.  If people want Hope Solo dropped because she was an abrasive zagnut about the Zika virus before the tournament and an unsportsmanlike crybaby afterwards, that's irrelevant at this point.  People want Hope Solo dropped because of some fairly cruel math: alcohol-related incidents plus wins is tolerable, crummy personality plus losses is not. 

Calling Sweden "cowards" isn't grounds for dismissal, being not as good as another keeper in the pool is.  Solo being Solo, I wouldn't keep her around as the number two keeper, because the moral support she gives from the bench can be called into question.  Ask Briana Scurry.  But if this great country finally produces someone more able than Hope Solo, then it is Ellis' obligation to go with that player. 

Look, if Solo turned into a typical heartwarming Olympics soft-focus story - and with a public display of contrition and rehabilitation, she easily could have - and developed a social media style that made Mia Hamm look like Tila Tequila?  It also would have meant nothing.  Next World Cup is in three years.  Babyface Hope Solo wouldn't be owed a spot, so heel Hope Solo will have nothing to complain about if she takes the fall here.

Would it be fair for Hope Solo to take the fall?  Of course not.  Nobody should - it was a penalty kick shootout.  As I write this, Sweden just won another one, this time against the hosts.  (No comment yet as to Sweden's bravery, or lack of same.)  It would be just as unfair to blame the team's focus on their Equal Pay for Equal Play hashtag. 

Of course, now that the USWNT has given us a very USMNT type of finish, maybe the slogan should be "Equal Pay or Equal Play."

The long break women's national teams get between the Olympics and World Cup qualifying means that Ellis will have plenty of time to evaluate what the 2019 team will look like.  But that will also be plenty of time for events beyond her control.  My hope for the USWNT is, ironically,  far less roster stability.  There should be constant pressure for every position.  It's not that Hope Solo should worry about her spot, it's that Alex Morgan and Crystal Dunn should, as well. 

But that's up to NWSL.  What the USWNT can do is remove the rule that says national team players must be paid more than non-international NWSL players.  Even though it's unlikely that an NWSL player will become more popular, and more highly paid, than a USWNT player, it's still a terrible policy on its face.  Kevin McCauley and Stephanie Yang wrote a wonderful argument about the NWSL, and the mindset of the people in it - they're chasing national team spots, period.  But that just raises the average age of the people competing for USWNT spots by a year or so.  It takes a real prodigy to unseat a future Hall of Famer with dozens of caps in her physical prime, and if most of the potential pool has to retire in order to work for a living, that bodes ill for the national team in the long run. 

Yes, now it can be said - Hope Solo was and still is one of the best keepers in the world. But she was able to retain that status partly because it wasn't possible to make a living as the second-best goalkeeper in America.  Solo won the job permanently from Scurry when Scurry was in her mid-30's.  Solo is in her mid-30's, and only now is there serious talk of replacing her.  These aren't coincidences.

So either the American sporting public embraces women's soccer when it's not wrapped in the flag, or the USSF subsidizes a USWNT farm system.  Both will depend on the marketability of players who aren't quite good enough for the national team.  That's the real battle in women's soccer in America today, and it looks like it will be a long one.