US Women's Soccer Gains Fans With On-Field Skills, Off-Field Controversies

The team has a history of playing tough soccer and being controversial.

July 25, 2013, 5:49 PM

July 25, 2013— -- The U.S. Women's Soccer team has a history of playing tough soccer and being controversial. At the center of it all is goalkeeper Hope Solo.

"We're trying to evolve the women's game," Solo said. "That means filling these beautiful stadiums where we're at. That means selling tickets."

"Nightline" recently spent time with some of the members of the women's team as they practiced for an upcoming game against South Korea.

The ladies on the team are some of the world's most talented athletes, ranked No. 1 after capturing four gold medals, including one earned after they beat their archrival Japan at the 2012 London Olympics.

Solo is one of the most recognizable and talented soccer players on the planet and the most accomplished goalkeeper in the women's game, leading the U.S. team to two of their four gold medals.

Her skills on the field have earned her huge endorsements from Gatorade and Nike. She has even done a stint on ABC's "Dancing With the Stars." And her tough-talking rebel persona, from Twitter tirades with teammates to baring it all for ESPN's annual Body Issue, hasn't hurt her popularity.

Inside ESPN Magazine's Body Issue

"This is me," Solo said. "Bare all. This is what wins us world championships, gold medals. Don't put my body down because at the end of the day, you're going to be cheering me on in the goal to help this country win medals."

Like her or not, Solo's star power has helped bring women's soccer into the big time, and with it comes cash and face recognition.

The biggest controversy in Solo's career came in 2007. Former U.S. Women's soccer coach Greg Ryan benched her right before the final match in the World Cup against Brazil. When the team endured a crushing 4-0 loss, Solo spoke her mind, saying, "It was the wrong decision" to not put her in. Ryan was dismissed by U.S. Soccer the following year and to this day, Solo defends her statement.

"I didn't dress down my coach. I didn't dress down a teammate. I fully believed in my abilities," she said. "So that was confidence. That's what it was. It wasn't putting down a teammate, it wasn't putting down a coach."

Solo isn't trying to make friends, and doesn't think she should have to.

"It's sad but it's true, but I do believe in 2007, it was one of the first moments a female athlete came out and said, 'You know what, I'm not trying to be friends with anybody, I'm here to win,'" she said. "I was proud of that moment, I suffered greatly for it. I came back stronger. I'm still here…. And I'm still not shopping every day with my teammates."

Although being typecast as the mean girl hasn't been easy for Solo, it has paid off in boosting her star status.

"Everything I do, I play to win, and I speak the truth, and people either love me or they hate me," she said.

And that sexy bad girl image has paved the way for some of her teammates. The women of the U.S. soccer team are putting it all out there for fans, exposing their outspoken personalities and favorite off-field moments on social media.

"I think the perception of the whole team, that kind of image, with being sort of a blonde ponytail, so to speak, was the stereotype," said midfielder Megan Rapinoe. "There is a little bit of drama here and then there's a lot of fun, and people are going to see people's personalities. I think that's a positive thing."

In June, striker Sydney Leroux was chastised for the way she celebrated her goal that gave the U.S. team a 3-0 victory over Canada. The game was played in Canada, and after Leroux, who was born in British Columbia and once played for a Vancouver club team, scored her goal in the 93rd minute of the game, she kissed the U.S. team crest on her jersey and put a finger to her lips to shush the booing crowd.

Leroux said she would never take back the way she celebrated that goal against Canada.

"I don't take that back. I would do that a million times," she said. "It was one of the best feelings of my life."

Whether fans like it or not, that kind of provocative behavior has helped to bring much needed attention to their sport. So how does the U.S. Women's soccer team attract the kind of dedicated fans to the sport that other professional leagues, like the NFL or NBA, already own?

"Keep winning," Rapinoe said. "I think now there are so many different personalities on the team, there is something for everyone. Through social media, we really are more so in people's faces, in their living rooms. There are some girl-next-doors. And then there are some that are not."

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