When the United States Women’s National Team touched down at St. Louis’ Lambert International Airport on Tuesday, they were greeted with dozens of smiling faces, young female soccer fans anxiously awaiting and welcoming the leading ladies of U.S. Soccer.
For Hope Solo, it was a welcome back of sorts. Hope spent two years in St. Louis early in her career as a member of the Women’s Professional Soccer league club St. Louis Athletica and was happy to return to one of the cities where she has crafted her career.
“It was a great welcoming. It’s good to be back in St. Louis,” she said this week. “I’ve always wanted to make it back. I never seemed to.”
Now she finally has, as a member of the USWNT. They will play host to New Zealand on Saturday in an international friendly. It’s one of four the U.S. will play before the World Cup begins in June. But it does hold some degree of importance for the Americans.
“It’s kind of a World Cup preparation game,” Hope said. “But we haven’t named a World Cup roster yet, so we’re still playing for our spots.”
Hope’s spot on the WNT is about as secure as they come, but she’s still anxious for the tune-up. She played in all four games for the U.S. at the Algarve Cup last month in Portugal and after allowing a goal late in the first half of the first game, she didn’t allow another for the final 300+ minutes of the tournament as Team USA cruised to a gold medal.
“(The games in Portugal) felt like a big weight off my shoulders,” Hope told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I felt free again, to love the game and to play. I just think with the stress came a type of anxiety I’d never known. It was good to deal with that. I felt lighter, I felt free.”
She has the complete support of her teammates as well, as USWNT defender Lori Chalupny, another former member of the St. Louis-based Athletica, told the Post-Dispatch:
“As a team we stand by each other,” Chalupny said. “Hope took care of herself when she had a little time away. She’s back now and we’re grateful to have her. … Hope is a world class goalkeeper, the best in the world in my opinion. She’s an important member of this team. It’s great to have her back.”
Hope spoke briefly with St. Louis talk show host McGraw Millhaven on Big 550 KTRS Wednesday morning about trying to play the best soccer of her career as the 2015 World Cup approaches.
“I’m in a really good place with where I’m at with my personal life and where I’m at with my career. I’m starting to peak and find my best soccer, which hasn’t been there the last couple of years. I’m starting to feel really good as we go into the World Cup. I’m a veteran player, but I feel good. My body feels incredible. I’ve been really focusing on my health. I feel better at 33 than I did in my late 20s…I know how to take care of my body more now, so physically I feel better now. I was more of a raw athlete in my 20s…my mental game is more mature than it was 10 years ago.”
It was less than 10 years ago that Hope made her home in St. Louis for a two-year stint with the Athletica from 2008 to 2010. It was just the second U.S. stop in her pro career and her first in the WPS after two seasons playing abroad.
“I started here. I chose St. Louis,” she said of her WPS career.
During that time, Hope rose to become one of the best goaltenders in the world. She was named WPS Goalkeeper of the Year in 2009 and later that year, in part because of her outstanding performance for the Athletica, she became the first goalie to be named the U.S. Soccer Female Athlete of the Year.
She was back on the same field in Fenton, Missouri that she dominated as a member of the Athletica practicing on Wednesday and Thursday afternoon with the USWNT. As Tom Timmermann of the Post-Dispatch documented in an article about Hope, her return to St. Louis, however brief, has brought more peace for Hope:
“U.S. women’s national team goalkeeper Hope Solo was all smiles as she walked across the field at the Soccer Park in Fenton after a lengthy practice session on Wednesday afternoon, even after two hours of running and diving on the artificial turf there. It was her first time back at the field since she played there for the Athletica, St. Louis’ entry in Women’s Professional Soccer, as the U.S. team gets ready to face New Zealand at Busch Stadium on Saturday.”
“I’ve gone through a lot of emotions,” she told the Post-Dispatch, “but I’m where I need to be emotionally and now I can continue to peak and focus on the physical side.”
But she’s also preparing to play on a much grander stage than she was used to in her time playing for the Athletica at the Soccer Park. Saturday’s game will be played in front of thousands at St. Louis’ Busch Stadium, home of St. Louis’ signature sports franchise, the Cardinals.
Hope recalled the last time she played for the USWNT in St. Louis back in 2008, when they hosted at the Edward Jones Dome, home of the Rams. She said she expects the experience on Saturday to be much more unique.
“We get to play in the baseball stadium this time, at Busch Stadium, I’m so excited. It’s on grass. It’s going to be a completely different environment. I always loved Busch Stadium,” she said. “I feel like I’m going to love it, walking into the stadium and taking a moment. Being a goalkeeper I can kind of step aside and just look at the fans and really find appreciation of being in my career for as long as I’ve been here. My first time with the [National] Team was in 1999, so it’s been quite some time. It’s 2015, I’ve been here for a long time and I still am very grateful for what I do for a living.”
Saturday’s friendly between the U.S. Women’s National Team and New Zealand at Busch Stadium in St. Louis is slated to begin at 3 p.m. CT and can be seen on Fox Sports 1.