I'M OLD ENOUGH TO REMEMBER the deep, agonizing pain of seeing the Boston Bruins' all-time best player Bobby Orr suiting up for the Chicago Blackhawks at the end of his career. I empathize with the San Francisco 49ers fans who had to endure two years of watching Joe Montana play for the Kansas City Chiefs. I honestly still don’t know who I’ll be rooting for on Oct. 3, 2021, when the New England Patriots — my favorite NFL team since 1969 — kick off against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He should have been a Patriot for life. Bill Belichick made a profoundly stupid decision to let Tom go. End of discussion.
This Sunday night at 10 p.m. eastern time I’ll be facing a similar dilemma. The United States women’s national soccer team will be playing Jamaica and, in our soccer-crazed household whose world is disproportionately dominated by my 11-year-old daughter, Angie, we treat National Team games like stop-the-presses Must See TV. Normally, we’d be all in for the women wearing red, white and some shade of blue. This Sunday, though, we’ll be tracking the women in yellow and green, especially the one with the number 6 on the front of her Jamaican jersey.
I call Havana Solaun my soccer daughter. Because virtually all professional women’s soccer players didn’t make a living wage in 2017, players like Havana were placed with “host families” who provided free rent in an available room in their homes. I raised my family’s hand back then and, seemingly out of nowhere, a world-class soccer player from the Washington Spirit was frying her breakfast sausages and scrambling her eggs in our kitchen many mornings for the next two years. Just like Renée Zellweger's character Dorothy Boyd in the movie “Jerry Maguire,” Havana had us at hello. We loved her instantly, as I noted in my book, “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions.” Knowing Havana is what made meeting Joanna Lohman, and writing the book, possible.
Some people in the last few years have suggested that we were generous for opening our home to a stranger. My perspective is the benefits were mostly ours. With a daughter who believes or believed, depending on the day, that she, too, can be a National Teamer, we were able to see first-hand how utterly difficult it was (is) to be a women’s professional soccer player in America. If Havana had been a professional male, staying with a host family at age 23 would have been unthinkable. If she had been a male, she would have had better facilities, a vastly larger paycheck, qualified team doctors to help her overcome injuries, more opportunities for sponsors — and not have had to endure the sound of my older daughter’s cello practices wafting through her bedroom door while she was trying to sleep.
Havana showed us what it means to be dedicated to a dream no matter what. She showed us breathtakingly good skills. Look at the speed, agility and instinct it took to complete this goal in May of 2017: https://washingtonspirit.com/2017/05/06/washington-spirit-earns-4-3-home-win-over-sky-blue-fc/ (2:00 mark of the video). Along the way, she fished with us in the pond in the ravine, patiently answered my endless questions about youth soccer, coached Angie in the front yard, and showed up to watch with her teammates at the wine bar when my son was beginning to follow his own dream of making it as a professional musician (www.DukePaul.com). In short, she became a member of our family. When Havana scored the first and only World Cup goal in Jamaican women’s soccer history in 2019, I literally cried for minutes on end. I get teared up again, every time I watch the replay (https://www.foxsports.com/watch/1544512579516). Have you seen a better, more athletic, goal?
To many people, Sunday night’s contest between the U.S. and Jamaica will be inconsequential. It’s like the first-game-in-September college football scenario where the powerhouse schedules the patsy to puff up the quarterback and the stats. The U.S. team is ranked No. 1 in the world and Jamaica is somewhere south of 50th. On paper, the U.S. should win at least 4-0. For me, though, this game means everything. My view, as her soccer Dad, is that Havana could (should) be on the U.S. team instead. Born in Hong Kong to a Cuban father and Jamaican mother with dual citizenship in Canada and the U.S., Havana grew up in Florida as an American girl who played with and against many of the women on the current U.S. team as a youth player. She was called in to seven different youth National Team camps through the years but, ultimately, the coaches let her slip away.
As I have watched Havana become a starter for the North Carolina Courage this season, spraying uncannily great passes all over the field, I wonder what might have been. I think of what Havana revealed to me during an interview that appears on page 241 of our book: “I’d like to think that some point down the road, the U.S. coaches will watch Jamaica play and say, ‘Dang, we missed out on that one.’” Sunday night could be that night.
But Sunday isn’t really about proving anyone wrong. As Havana stated in our book, playing for Jamaica — with women whose blood flows through her own veins — is probably the way it was supposed to work out all along. Leading a group of underdogs, a group of Davids vs. Goliaths if you will, has become her higher calling ever since she pulled on the crest of a group of soccer vagabonds known as the “Reggae Girlz.” It’s a team where basic needs of players are barely met, sort of like the U.S. Women’s National Team circa 1985. I’ll never forget what Havana told me: “The game has taken on a higher purpose in my life now; it’s not just about me anymore. I just hope I can show them how to play the game with dignity and give them hope for a better future.”
So come Sunday night at 10, for this one game, I know who I’ll be rooting for.