VANCOUVER, B.C.—Through the first three matches of Olympic qualifying, arguably the biggest American star off the pitch had been primarily an afterthought on it; U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo, of Dancing With The Stars and nude ESPN photo shoots fame, had played reasonably well and recorded three clean sheets, but she hadn't been particularly tested. That changed in Friday's crucial semifinal, as Solo had her top game of the tournament precisely when the U.S. required it, making several critical saves to help the Americans to a 3-0 victory over Costa Rica and a berth in the 2012 London Olympics. American coach Pia Sundhage said afterwards that Solo's world-class play gave the U.S. a crucial edge.
"We have Hope Solo," Sundhage said. "No other country has Hope Solo."
Solo's presence proved quite essential for the Americans on Friday night. Costa Rica came flying out of the gate and pressed hard right from the opening kickoff, and although the U.S. was able to take a 1-0 lead in the 16th minute off a Tobin Heath header, they were rather fortunate to get into halftime without conceding a goal. A key part of that was thanks to the play of Solo, who made several spectacular saves, including one off a partial breakaway where she raced out at just the right moment to block the attacker's shot.
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"I was quick off the line, I was happy about that," she said afterwards. "I haven't had a whole lot of games since the World Cup, so being able to read the ball coming through from the back line bought my players time to get back. I got off my line quickly, I read it well, and thankfully, because I didn't get it cleanly in my hands, my defenders were there to back it up."
It's that absence that made Solo's play even more remarkable. While many of her teammates had plenty of soccer this fall, Solo was tearing up a different stage on Dancing With The Stars. After the game against Mexico on Tuesday, she said she was still working her way back into her best form.
"I'm just coming back from some time off, and I'm just trying to get my quickness back, my fitness back, my kicking back" she said. "I'm nowhere near where I want to be. ...That's the great part of being an athlete, you always want to be better."
Solo was also dealing with a quad injury, which made her availability for this game an open question less than 24 hours before kickoff. That didn't seem to hamper her much Friday, though. Solo did get some help, particularly when a long blast from Carol Sanchez went off the bar and Costa Rica couldn't bury the rebound, but her performance was still massive for an American team that ran into fierce opposition.
If it was Solo's best game of the tournament, it was required only because it was also Costa Rica's top showing. This was not the side that barely escaped with 2-0 victories against Haiti and Cuba before being pummeled 5-1 by Canada Monday. This Costa Rican squad looked like an entirely new team, and they brought an intensity and fire that heretofore hadn't been seen from them. They played a physical style that stifled the American attack, but they were also willing to sally forth in attack and created plenty of chances. That forced Solo into making more and tougher saves than she'd had to thus far in the competition, and the U.S. squad should be very thankful she was able to make them, as a Costa Rican goal could have turned the tide.
Instead, the Americans hung on until Abby Wambach's 72nd-minute shot went off Costa Rican keeper Erika Miranda. It was cleared off the line by a defender, but the clearance went straight to Wambach, who headed it across the box to Carli Lloyd. Lloyd, the hero of the U.S. win over Mexico, again made no mistake, driving a blast home from the top of the box and giving the Americans a two-goal cushion. Costa Rica kept pressing, but substitute Alex Morgan's 89th minute goal sealed their fate and ensured that it would be the U.S. moving on to London.
[ Slideshow: U.S. women beat Costa Rica ]
Afterwards, Solo said that although the team's play wasn't perfect, they'll take the win.
"We put together a great, great game," she said."You can't always win four, five, six-nothing against every team. Not every team's going to play perfectly every single game, but we got the job done. We did what we had to do."
Sundhage added if Solo plays at the level she showcased Friday, that bodes very well for the U.S. moving forward into the Olympics.
"She really needs to bring her game every time she plays," Sundhage said. "It's good for her, good for the team, and good for me."
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