Sports Nut

Major League Soccer’s Best Hope?

Investigating whether Hope Solo could make it in a men’s professional league.

Hope Solo

While American goalkeeper Hope Solo didn’t lead the United States to a Women’s World Cup title, the loss hasn’t seemed to dim her star power. Solo, who is on the cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated and guested on David Letterman on Tuesday night, could be the star that the perpetually struggling Women’s Professional Soccer league has been searching for. Then again, the little-known and little-seen WPS might not be a big enough galaxy for her star.

What are Solo’s other professional options? On the Facebook page for Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen, a listener asked a tantalizing question: “If you were a Major League Soccer manager, would you hire Hope Solo? I would think it would be a safe bet, and a financially successful ‘stunt.’ Men can run and shoot faster, but can they save better?”

The short answer is no—Hope Solo won’t be moving to MLS. The even shorter answer might be dead silence, since I couldn’t get anyone connected to Major League Soccer or U.S. Soccer to broach the subject, likely due to fear that they’d sound patronizing or chauvinistic.

One person who would talk on the record is Tony DiCicco, who coached the World Cup-winning 1999 U.S. women’s national team. DiCicco knows better than anyone how talented women soccer players can be, but he’s still realistic about the imposing physical differences between women and men. “How do you think Diana Taurasi would do if she was in the NBA?” he says, deflating David Stern’s assertion that a woman will soon play at pro basketball’s highest level. “Over one or two games, Hope could be great,” he continues. “But in the long run, the bigger, stronger players would win out.”

In the past, the search for a woman to break into a man’s game has focused on specialized roles that don’t require brute size and strength. Eri Yoshida, a teenager from Japan, has gotten opportunities to pitch against both Japanese and American pros, thanks to her unusual sidearm-style knuckleball. The only woman to ever sign an NHL contract was Manon Rhéaume,a goalie.

It’s a misconception, however, that soccer goalkeepers have been stashed in the net because they’re subpar athletes. “That’s old thinking,” says DiCicco, who currently manages the WPS’s Boston Breakers. Ray Newland, a goalkeeping coach who minded nets for the English sides Wigan Athletic and Everton, agrees with DiCicco. While he marvels at the technical skill of elite female keepers like Solo and England’s Rachel Brown, saying they have the mental toughness and positional sense to rival the best men, he adds that their disadvantages in size and strength would make them a liability at the top level. “Today’s best teams only want keepers who are 6-foot-2 and above,” Newland says. (Hope Solo is 5-foot-9.) “You have center midfielders who are 6-foot-4 or 6-foot-5. … If I’ve got four or five of these guys charging at me in net, I don’t stand a chance.”

Because of the size problem, a woman is more likely to break into men’s soccer as a striker or a midfielder. (Marta for MLS!) As DiCicco puts it: “If a midfielder makes mistakes way out in space, the team can recover. If a goalkeeper makes even one mistake, it can mean the difference between a win and a loss.”                                                                                        

So, Hope Solo might not help a Major League Soccer club in the standings. But what about the second part of our listener’s question—would hiring Solo make for a “financially successful stunt”? It might sell a few extra tickets, at least in the short term. But that’s not the kind of success MLS wants.

John Guppy’s marketing company, Gilt Edge Soccer, works with pro teams on strategy and branding. He thinks adding Solo to an MLS roster “would never happen in a million years.” With Major League Soccer just starting to get credibility with the average American sports fan, stunt casting would be counterproductive. Guppy mentions the debate in soccer circles when Chad Ochocinco “tried out” for Sporting Kansas City this spring. He’s a tremendous athlete and passionate about the game, but it wasn’t feasible to think he could step in and play at an elite level. It was good for the league, then, that Ochocinco never made it into a real game.

Solo’s best shot at long-term stardom, then, is to become the centerpiece of a viable women’s professional league. It also wouldn’t hurt if she led the American women to gold in the 2012 Olympics as well as a redemptive victory in the 2015 Women’s World Cup. And who knows, more candidates could emerge by then who might reasonably cross soccer’s gender divide. It’s just not likely they’ll be wearing goalkeepers’ jerseys.