Quietly, Hope Solo part of United States defense on 333-minute shutout streak

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OTTAWA – “Everybody needs to just stop talking about the streak!” says the always exuberant U.S. defender Meghan Klingenberg, smiling at a throng of reporters huddled around an small, plastic pop-up table in the humble lobby of a college soccer facility on the outskirts of Canada’s capital.

She was joking, but all anyone can talk about is the United States’ 333-minute shutout streak at the Women’s World Cup.

The U.S. women totaled their lowest goal-scoring output in any group stage of a Women’s World Cup at this edition of the tournament, scoring four times, including three goals against Australia. The Americans aren’t playing particularly well; they’ve acknowledged as much. The team’s defense is the reason why the Americans are in Ottawa this week preparing for Friday’s quarterfinal against China.

[KASSOUF: Defense the United States’ saving grace thus far at WC]

That in itself is ironic enough, given the amount of pre-tournament attention given to the depth of forward position. There is all-time world goal scoring leader Abby Wambach, superstar Alex Morgan, up-and-comer Christen Press and Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez providing depth off the bench. They were supposed to be scoring at will, so went the thought.

But all the talk has been about the defense – and, specifically, the back four. But behind the back four stands Hope Solo, who, in perhaps the most ironic twist of this whole scenario, nobody is talking about lately.

Controversy swirled around Solo some 36 hours before the tournament started. New details regarding her arrest last year on alleged domestic violence were surfaced in an ESPN report and it was the talk of the World Cup on Day 2 of the competition. Solo’s case was dismissed in January but prosecutors plan to appeal that decision. She was accused of fourth-degree domestic-violence abuse against her half-sister and teenage nephew. Solo hasn’t discussed the incident in some time, recently responding to a question regarding it that she was “here to talk about soccer.”

The night after that new report, Solo went out and made two world-class saves against Australia that changed the opening game, preventing Australia from scoring five minutes into the match and swatting away a would-be equalizer seconds after Megan Rapinoe’s go-ahead goal.

[KASSOUF: Under scrutiny and still not playing their best, US women try to focus]

Monday’s shutout against Colombia in the Round of 16 marked the third straight clean sheet and the 87th – a U.S. record – of Solo’s 168 career starts. It was Solo’s eighth shutout at a World Cup, two fewer than Briana Scurry.

Solo wasn’t available for comment. She last spoke to reporters following that win over Australia on June 8.

“The last two or three months, I think she’s looked really, really sharp in training, played well in games,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said of Solo after the Australia match. “She’s had laser focus.”

Solo is known to study practice film extensively to see where she can gain an extra step. She is still widely regarded as the best goalkeeper in the world.

“She studies her steps and her movements and where she was leaning,” says U.S. defender Lori Chalupny, who has played with Solo for club and country over the past decade. “She’s a perfectionist in her skill.”

Solo hasn’t been called upon too often since that opener to make the highlight-reel saves, but she is quietly doing some of the smaller things that usually go unnoticed – the distribution, the communication, the organization on corner kicks. Solo has been big when called upon – “we are very happy about, by the way,” Klingenberg interjects – but Solo has been active.

“It’s kind of hard to hear her during the games because our fans have been so great and so loud and incredible, but she’s still communicating,” Klingenberg said. “You can see her pointing, you can see her talking about where the defenders need to be. She’s talking about players running into the box, players that we need to cover.”

Klingenberg made the most important save of the tournament against Sweden, jumping to head a shot off the crossbar and out of goal late in a scoreless draw. She’s part of a back four – along with Julie Johnston, Ali Krieger and Becky Sauerbrunn – that has gotten plenty of attention, but as a unit, it’s really a back five.

“Hope is a great force to have on the field,” Klingenberg said. “Just having her in goal, first of all, is a motivator, is a confidence builder for your back line, for the team in front of her.”