A Promising Start

I’m really excited to welcome everyone to my new blog.

During my month away from the national team, I had a lot of time to think, and to reassess my life and career. I also learned a lot about myself. I wanted a place to continue that process and share my experiences with you – about our team, my teammates and our quest to win the World Cup this summer.

So that’s what I hope my blog will be.

For this first entry, I want to talk about my return to the team for the Algarve Cup, the tournament we just won in Portugal, and some of the most encouraging things about our performance. It was a good start to our campaign, but we know we have a lot of work to do if we want to hold the championship trophy come July.

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REUNION

When we headed to Portugal for the Algarve Cup, we all took different flights to Lisbon. From there, we had a three-hour ride to where we were staying. I took a van with five players I met at the airport, and by the time we reached the hotel, most of the team were already there. I kind of saw my teammates and coaches sporadically that first day at different times, but I had already been reunited with all of them well before that.

At the end of January, before I left Southern California for the start of my 30-day suspension, I’d met with everyone on the team. For the first time, I’d opened up to my teammates about everything I’d been going through. I talked about how hard it had been going through the court case with my family, and explained why I hadn’t been that approachable at camp. I’d been trying to focus while I was on the field, but I’d been a mess emotionally and mentally, and spent most nights crying with my roommate away from the team. After I was done speaking with everyone, one of my teammates gave me the biggest hug and said, “Hope, apology accepted.” That meant so much. And that was kind of the whole sentiment of the team in Los Angeles. Over the days that followed, I received so many encouraging emails from my teammates — it made me realize how important it was for me to be more open with them.

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So a few days before heading to Portugal, I’d sent an e-mail to all of my teammates. I let them know what I had been doing in the time I’d been away. I told them that for the first time in my life, I’d been seeing a therapist and dealing with a lot of my issues, and finally addressing all the pain and anger that was inside of me. Twice a week, I also worked with an Eastern medicine healer in Seattle who had incredible experience helping some of the greatest athletes perform at the highest levels. He really helped me see things in a different light. I wanted them to know that I hadn’t just taken 30 days off. Ultimately, I wanted to be a better person and teammate, and that’s what I’d been focused on.

After I addressed my personal stuff, my e-mail turned to the World Cup. There had been a lot of change over the last year with the team, and with all of that change came a lot of questions — who was going to play where, what our lineup was going to be, that kind of thing. I just said: Look, it doesn’t matter where we play, how we play, or who’s on the field. We’re not going to look back and realize that we made excuses, and that they kept us from winning. At the end of the day, we’re not a team that makes excuses. We’re going to find a way to win, and we’re not just going to find a way, we’re going to look the part. We’re not just going to survive, we’re going to thrive. We’re going to win this World Cup. I think it was something that needed to be said, and it was awesome to see everybody’s responses back. Some were a little bit more sentimental about it, and other people were like, “Hell yeah, let’s do this.”

Over those first days I was back with the team in Portugal, I had so many people come up to me, and give me a huge hug, and tell me just how really grateful they were for the e-mail. One of the most meaningful moments came from same teammate who had hugged me in LA. When I saw her, she actually apologized for not reaching out to me during my 30 days off. She said, “I didn’t want you to think you were forgotten.” That was the last thing in the world I would have expected to hear. Nobody needed to reach out to me in my 30 days off. They were focused on the two games against France and England, and I was giving them space. It was really sweet of her.

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Being back with the team felt really, really good. It’s funny the things that you miss. For the past 10 years, we’d made a tradition of going pottery shopping at different places on the road. It’s always been part of the Portugal trips, even back when I was 18. But the past two years, we hadn’t gone, and none of the youngest players on the team knew that tradition. So we brought it back. We took a road trip, and Shannon Boxx (who we all know as Boxxy) patiently and bravely drove us throughout the Algarve region in our old, squared-off van with manual shifting. It’s great to have Boxxy back for many reasons!

RETURN TO THE FIELD

When we first started training in Portugal, I wasn’t training that well. It wasn’t because I didn’t have it in me, or I wasn’t fit and prepared. To be honest, I don’t know what it was. The very first day, the winds were awful. I don’t know how strong they were, but it made for a really tough training session. The ball was going every which way, and because it was moving so much, I took a ball off three of my fingers and hurt them pretty badly — so much so that thought I’d broken them. That first week, I started protecting my hand a little bit, which changed my body shape and how I was catching balls, and my hands weren’t that clean.

So I was kind of frustrated with the wind, with hurting my hand, just kind of frustrated in general, but I still was training, and training hard. And then, for whatever reason, one day everything just kind of came together. I had to tape my hand up, I had to wear a different glove, and I protected it for the first week. But the pain kind of subsided, and after about a week of video and things like that, everything kind of clicked for me. It felt great to see it all kind of come together, the technical side especially.

Going into the first game against Norway, I just felt calm, and that carried all the way through the tournament. People told me I smiled a lot more when they watched the games, and I think it was because I was able to enjoy the time with my defenders especially.

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We have a young defense that doesn’t have a lot of international experience, and it’s important for all of our players to know what it takes to win a World Cup. All it takes is one mistake, and the ball is in the back of the net. We had that happen to us against Japan in the World Cup Finals. Some of us live with what that feels like. At the same time, I’ve also learned that laying into everyone when we’re not good enough can create a defense that’s almost fearful of making mistakes. So this time, I took the approach of watching video together with the defenders, and working on my relationship with them. It felt good. I felt relaxed. I didn’t feel like I was trying as hard to organize everyone. I had more fun playing. I was able to find the joy in the game.

I worked a lot on my technique kicking in my 30 days off, so it was really nice to see it transfer over to the games. My left foot was consistent. My right foot was consistent. I was comfortable with the ball, and with the defenders playing it back to me. In the last couple months, my kicking hadn’t been great, so that felt really good to know that all the work I put in was paying off. We got some counterattacks and some second balls off my kicking, and it was part of our style of play. So that was good, too.

DEFENSIVE STARS EMERGE

I was really happy with how far along we came with our defense, and the way we played together. To win a World Cup, our defense has to be sound. The comfort level of our defenders was pretty incredible, and two players in the Algarve Cup really impressed me: Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston.

Becky is one of the best individual defenders we have, and is one of the best in the game when it comes to getting out of pressure. She had a comfort level in Portugal that was the highest I’d seen in years. She really shined. That’s what you need in the World Cup. Becky has all the tools, a tremendous skill set, and I was really proud of her.

Julie is a really young player. She’s only had a few games with the U.S. team, and in one of those, she played midfield. Before the Algarve Cup, she was behind Christie Rampone and Whitney Engen, but both of them were injured. So we have a young player getting the call that she would be in the starting lineup. Of course, she could have a tendency to be nervous. These were pretty big games. It’s our biggest tournament before the World Cup.

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But Julie came in, and she was just absolutely solid, doing everything that she needed to do. She kept things simple when she needed to keep them simple, but played a very smart game. There was a play where she flicked the ball with her head backwards, away from France’s high pressuring forwards, giving me a better chance to get to the ball first and allowing us to keep possession — for such a young player, it was a very savvy move. She was confident and relaxed in her decision making and positioning. She has all the tools, and of course, she is a very tough defender. Julie talked the entire game, and it wasn’t just empty chatter; she was really helping to try to keep the line together, to make sure she and Becky were working together. They covered for one another. And then most of all, she listened instantly and automatically because she has so much trust in all her teammates. It was truly impressive. There were some really good qualities in Julie, and I think she’s going to be around for a long time.