"I almost lost my career," says embattled goalkeeper Hope Solo in an exclusive PEOPLE interview
It’s been a messy roller coaster of a year for embattled soccer sensation Hope Solo – and this particular morning, a few weeks ago, was no exception.
Shortly before leaving for Canada to compete in the Women’s World Cup, the woman regarded as the planet’s greatest goalkeeper welcomed PEOPLE into her Seattle home, where she sat poolside, gingerly touching her nose and cheekbone.
“I got blasted with a ball to the face at practice,” Solo told PEOPLE that day. “It doesn’t hurt as much as you’d think – not if you’re strong and keep your face in it. It only hurts if you pull away.”
No one would accuse Solo of ever pulling away from anything – be it soccer balls or the kind of trouble that has repeatedly threatened to overshadow her brilliant on-field feats.
Last week, in the midst of her impressive World Cup performance, she once again found herself the center of controversy as the half sister she was arrested for attacking in June 2014 went public with alleged details of the incident. A police report also surfaced, painting a picture of Solo as insulting and combative.
Within days, everyone from her former coach to a U.S. senator was denouncing her, with a few critics even demanding that U.S. Soccer officials yank their star player from the team.
“It’s been a painful year,” Solo admitted even before the latest round of headlines, tears welling up in her eyes. “I almost lost my career. It’s been traumatic and embarrassing.”
According to the two-page incident report, police arrived at the home of her half sister Teresa Obert shortly after midnight on June 21, 2014, and were told that Hope had “repeatedly punched” her and Obert’s then-17-year-old son in the face. The 6-foot-9-inch, 280-pound youth told officers that he later “broke” a wooden broom over Solo’s head in an effort to get her to “stop assaulting” his mother.
According to court papers, Solo told officers that her nephew “hit” her over the head with a broomstick after becoming enraged when she called him “fat and un-athletic.” After being arrested on two counts of domestic violence assault, a handcuffed Solo was taken to jail, where it’s claimed she hurled insults at officers. At one point, she allegedly yelled, “You’re scared of me because you know if these handcuffs were off I’d kick your ass.”
Solo, insists her attorney Todd Maybrown, was “naturally upset and emotional after being wrongfully arrested.”
In January 2015, a judge dismissed the case after Obert and her son left the state to avoid a court-ordered deposition, and prosecutors – who have appealed the ruling – withheld information from Solo’s attorneys.
“It’s not often that a judge dismisses a case,” explains legal analyst and Seattle attorney Anne Bremner, “unless they find exceptional circumstances. It’s very rare.”
RELATED VIDEO: PEOPLE Exclusive: Hope Solo Says ‘People Still Believe That I Hit a Child’
For Solo, the judge’s ruling was bittersweet. “I wish my name was cleared,” she said. “But people still believe I was involved with domestic violence and that I hit a child. And I’ve had to accept that there’s nothing I can do to change people’s opinion of me.”
Solo admitted that she was in a “horrible, confused place” after the case was dismissed. “She [Obert] did everything she could to protect her son,” said Solo, “at the expense of my career and my future, and that was hard to swallow.”
A few weeks later, she landed in hot water once again, being suspended for 30 days from the U.S. team after her husband, former NFL player Jerramy Stevens, was arrested for driving drunk in Manhattan Beach, California, in the U.S. team van with Solo in the passenger seat. (The pair married in 2012, a day after his arrest for assaulting her, although a judge later declined to charge him.)
Stevens later served two days of a 30-day sentence for drunken driving and was ordered to complete a two-year alcohol program and four years of probation.
The woman who once used soccer to “get away from the chaos” of her tumultuous childhood – which, she says, included a father who was in and out of prison and a mother grappling with alcoholism – admits she hit “rock bottom,” and she began seeing a therapist for the first time in her life.
“Whenever I used to have any kind of disappointment or struggle, I turned to soccer,” said Solo. “But it wasn’t working this time around.”
It’s hard to say exactly what impact her tumultuous year has had on the thousands of diehard fans who often swarm around Solo – who competed on Dancing with the Stars in 2011 with partner Maksim Chmerkovskiy – after her games, screaming for an autograph and chanting her name. With the court case dismissed and a retrial unlikely, Solo’s position on the current U.S. team seems secure.
“Hope’s been fantastic and we’ve moved on,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said hours before the team’s opener victory over Australia earlier this month, during which Solo’s game-saving performance wowed even her harshest critics.
For the next few weeks of World Cup competition, Solo will undoubtedly fight to stay focused on soccer as the chaos from her past continues to swirl around her.
“It’s been awful,” she says. “But I’m at peace.”
To read more of Hope Solo’s exclusive interview, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday