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Solo in ‘happier place’ for US women’s soccer team

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POSTED April 3, 2015 8:32 p.m.

ST. LOUIS (AP) — These days, Hope Solo is projecting calm confidence in net. She’s working hard at putting distance on a recent suspension and leading the way for U.S. women’s soccer team preparing for the World Cup.

“I feel better, I feel a little bit lighter, like a weight’s been taken off my shoulders,” Solo said a few days before Saturday’s exhibition against the New Zealand national team at Busch Stadium.

“I feel just in a happier place, a bit more relaxed with my defenders, which is more fun for them to play with me when I’m not on edge.”

The team worked out at Busch in 55-degree chill on Friday, a day ahead of a test some players have likened to an opening-round opponent in the World Cup which begins in June in Canada. The game will help coach Jill Ellis sort out final adjustments to a 23-player roster, with two cuts to be made, and work on problem areas while keeping everyone involved.

“It’s not about locking players into 90 minutes for every match,” Ellis said.

Solo was suspended in January after her husband, former NFL tight end Jerramy Stevens, was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence in a U.S. Soccer federation van. That incident came shortly after domestic violence charges against Solo were dismissed.

The star goalkeeper came back strong in the recent victory in the Algarve Cup. Teammates have been supportive.

“I think Hope has come back with her eyes wide open and with her heart full of passion and excitement for the game, for competing in another World Cup,” forward Abby Wambach said. “We’re all human beings, we all have things that are going on in our personal lives, myself included.

“I think what people don’t understand is that when Hope steps on the pitch and does her part, does her job, that’s the important thing.”

Solo likes how the team seems to be coming together with plenty of time still before the World Cup.

“A couple months ago, I would say ‘Oh gosh, the wheels are falling off,’” Solo said. “We still have a lot to do and we don’t have a set starting lineup so there’s a couple times.

“But I think we’re gunning for it, I really do.”

Temporary sod covers the mound, plate and base paths at Busch, well ahead of the Cardinals’ April 13 home opener. The game is already a huge success at the box office with more than 32,000 tickets sold — more than double the usual draw.

Having a couple local products on the roster doesn’t hurt. Defender Becky Sauerbraunn and midfielder Lori Chalupny are both from St. Louis and Chalupny threw out the first pitch at a Cardinals game at Busch in 2009.

“It’s amazing,” Sauerbrunn said. “I had no doubt we’d get a really good reception, but this is a bit beyond our wildest dreams.”

Captain Christie Rampone will miss the exhibition, one of four being played in the U.S., but said she’s almost ready to return from an MCL strain to her left knee sustained blocking a shot.

“Probably a week,” the 39-year-old Rampone said. “I’m practicing and doing everything except for getting into like full contact.”

Other spots are still being sorted out. That includes the role for the 34-year-old Wambach, the 2012 FIFA women’s player of the year, who believes the U.S. could have more depth than any other country.

“Hopefully I’m called upon quite a bit, but those are things that are out of my control,” Wambach said. “I also am smart enough to know I’m not 25 years old.

“Jill has to be mindful of who she puts on the field, when she puts them on the field.”

Players will return to their clubs on Monday and then reconvene May 1 in Los Angeles.

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