‘Dare To Dream’: Havana Solaun’s Journey Of Determination And Resilience

by | Oct 16, 2021 | NWSL

NC Courage’s Injured Midfielder Made The Eventual Decision To Play For Jamaica Over The United States

Jaden Dakwa – LA Soccer Press /

Some of the biggest defining moments in the game’s history have been created through uncertainty, fairytale odds, and ingenuity.

Leicester City’s incredible ascent to winning a Premier League title in 2016 after only staving off relegation the year before. Diego Maradona’s infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal in the 1986 World Cup against England. Brazil’s humbling defeat to Germany 7-1 in the 2014 World Cup at the most storied stadium in Brazil, the Maracana.

Havana Solaun has had one of those ‘defining’ moments in history. Perhaps not on the same scale or magnitude as some of these events, but it is illustrious in its own right. Born to a Jamaican mother, Solaun decided to represent Jamaica after representing the U.S up until the Under-23 level.

She described what it is like being in the midst of one of those ‘moments’ in the 2019 World Cup. She didn’t hear the crowd, she didn’t hear her teammates, and everything on the pitch was moving at a sedated pace.

Solaun was substituted onto the pitch as a second-half substitute for Jamaica’s final group stage match against Australia in the 2019 World Cup.

Five minutes into the second half, Solaun went one-on-one with the goalkeeper. She coolly glided past the keeper and knocked the ball past scrambling defenders attempting to make a last-ditch clearance. It was the first goal Jamaica had ever scored at the Women’s World Cup.

It was the team’s first ever appearance in the World Cup and Jamaica was the first team from the Caribbean to ever qualify for the World Cup. More significantly, Jamaica was the lowest ranked team to ever qualify for a World Cup. With that goal, Solaun had cemented a storied achievement in the sport of soccer. It is a moment she still can’t quite wrap her head around in order to fully comprehend the significance of the goal she scored. 

“It’s funny because when you are in the moment it is silent,” Solaun said. “I almost hardly remember it. I was so in the moment at that time that I wasn’t really thinking about it. I literally only have forty five more minutes left on this world stage.”

Her ascent to this monumental achievement could be described as arduous. In fact, Havana recalls the difficulties and struggle she had to endure to get on the field with the Jamaican national team. She recounts that the journey to the World Cup left her exhausted from battling with the unpredictability and disorganization within the Jamaican Football Federation. Inconveniently timed drug tests and marketing events, then the team’s bus breaking down in France left her ‘drained’ along with her other teammates. Poor travel arrangements and multiple layovers left her frustrated and fatigued even before setting foot onto the world’s biggest stage. 

“We had to fight before we got on the field,” Solaun said. “The travel day to the World Cup there was a lead up and we met in Scotland. The travel schedule was like Jamaica, to New York, to Morocco, to London, to Scotland and 10 girls lost their bags for the duration of the lead up to the World Cup. Fortunately, I wasn’t a part of it because I was in Norway so I met them in Scotland.”

After the team lost their first two group stage matches, it was in the team’s final match against Australia that she scored the infamous goal. Everything seemingly came full circle as she reflected on being a young girl and having the Jamaican Football Federation expressing an interest in her representing the country. Solaun had embraced the challenge of making a permanent impact which would move the federation forward and leave behind a better foundation. In that magical moment when she scored, she sent a clear message that Havana Solaun will never back down from a challenge.

Solaun started playing soccer and tennis at a young age. She decided to take up tennis and gave up soccer. It was only after a few months that she decided to return to the sport. Solaun continued to develop and became a standout high school player that was heavily recruited by multiple colleges. After mulling over several college offers, she chose to attend the University of Florida in Gainesville. Despite a largely successful college career, Solaun tore her ACL in her junior year and she feared her chances of playing professional soccer had dashed.

“When I graduated college and entered the draft, I wasn’t even sure if I was going to get picked so I didn’t even watch the draft,” Solaun said. 

On the night of the draft she was at a track focused on completing a workout. It wasn’t until she later checked her phone and saw a flood of congratulatory messages that she learned she was drafted. One of those messages was from her college coach notifying her she was the newest member of the Seattle Reign. It was an unexpected surprise on the journey to fulfilling her dreams. She finally felt reassured she was good enough to become a professional soccer player. 

The elation was short lived because the unthinkable happened. In a preseason friendly, she broke one of her legs. It was a humbling reminder of how uncertain the fortunes of a professional footballer can be. All her hours of training, due diligence, and dedication had been seemingly brought to naught. 

After a long journey back to full fitness, which included extensive rehabilitation, she made a few appearances for the Reign. She would eventually get traded to the Washington Spirit. Another transition period with a new team meant she had to prove herself once again. And, she did. In the nation’s capital, she became a regular starter and goal scorer. Everything was seemingly going well. 

By the next season, she was no longer a starter. In some matches she wasn’t even traveling with the team after not being named to the full squad. Solaun admitted that self-doubt gradually manifested and left her feeling like she was back to square one. When asked if there was a moment she felt that self doubt would overcome her, Havana chuckled with a genuine sense of confirmation. She recalled a younger version of herself that felt like a genuine promising player now falling into a nadir of despair.

“I remember not making the travel roster,” Solaun said. “And, previously I had a good year. So, I was coming back from starting almost all the games to not even making the travel roster. I was definitely fairly low at that point. There was just no consistency for me.”

Solaun emphasized that at the highest level of the game players need game minutes to get confidence, but professional players must exhibit confidence in training against the world’s best to gain more game minutes. An infallible pressure placed on the shoulders of a young talent striving to become an established player.

This lack of confidence left her eager for a new challenge to prove herself. Solaun found a lifeline for her career in Norway. Klepp IL could provide her consistent minutes and give her a platform to play on the European stage. She had 10 goals in 20 appearances for the club helped to solidify Jamaica’s long standing interest in Solaun representing the national team.

After the World Cup, Solaun was ready to embark on her next challenge at the club level. Solaun signed a contract with Paris FC that would take her to the French capital.  She immediately paid for her flight and visa entry. As she was preparing to head to Paris, she did not hear from the club for three weeks. Solaun sent six unresponded emails to the club and even questioned her agent if the move was still going to materialize.

Although her visa entry had cleared, she was left shocked that the club could be so indifferent towards the status of her arrival. Solaun eventually notified her agent that she was ready to terminate the contract if she didn’t receive a response.

Solaun and her agent eventually asked for termination of the contract which prompted a response from the club. The club responded by notifying her that they had recently changed offices due to the COVID pandemic resulting in a delay to response. Paris FC still expressed an interest for Solaun to join but the club still needed to complete her housing and travel arrangements. Paris FC then advised Solaun to fly into Paris and all the necessary arrangements would be figured out upon her arrival. Solaun obliged and booked her flight.

Only a day later, Paris FC notified Solaun the club would be terminating her contract and declined to refund her any of the money she had already spent. Solaun went into the lockdown period without a club. No matches or training meant she had to workout individually to keep fit. She was isolated and she wasn’t receiving wages as she was not affiliated with a club. 

Eventually, in late June, an offer that could revitalize her career presented itself. Apollon Ladies, a club in Cyprus’s first division, offered Solaun a short-term contract. It would give Solaun the best chance to play in the UEFA Women’s Champions League. She accepted the offer in hopes of gaining imperative experience and playing more matches after six months of no competition.

Solaun arrived in Cyprus with then Orlando Pride left-back Carson Pickett, who was sent out on loan to the Cypriot club. After arriving in Cyprus, both players were notified they couldn’t participate in domestic matches, only Champions League matches. They spent the next two months just training and not playing in matches.

“The only reason we really came over here was for games,” Solaun said. “Because of COVID, the Champions League gets pushed back a month and a half. Now we are going to be here for three and a half months. The level is fairly low. It was just really pushed back.”

Solaun and Pickett were ready to make their exit from the club after being thrusted into a less than ideal playing schedule. The two met with the club president and requested to be released. The club president immediately denied the request. Luckily, Pickett was on loan and had an agreement in her contract clause that her parent club reserved the right to retract the loan. It was Solaun who was literally and figuratively stuck on an island.

After receiving additional confirmation that Champions League would be pushed back to late November, Solaun met with the club president for a second time. These were crunch-time talks and Solaun needed to advocate for herself in order to convince the president to let her leave. He doubled down on his previous stance.

Solaun continued pleading with him to be released as the clause in her contract stated she only had to remain until October for the team’s first Champions League match. That date had now passed and she no longer desired to play for the club. The club president told her to wait until December and declared she would re-sign. Havana was left dumbfounded that he was assuming she would re-sign after she made it clear she wanted out.

After none of his attempts to retain Solaun worked, the club president asked for a ‘promise’. Solaun told him she was ready to leave everything on the table.

“I’ll forgo my entire salary since I’ve been here,” Solaun said. “I’ll pay for my own flight home. My agent will replace me with another midfield player.”

At this point he admitted he was interested in a different ‘promise’.

“He was like, promise me your first salary in the U.S,” Solaun said.

Solaun scoffed during the interview as if she was still face to face with him. She couldn’t believe his demand.

“I was like, I haven’t had a salary since 2019,” Solaun said. “I’m not promising you my first salary in the U.S. It will probably be my only one this year.”

At this point Solaun was well aware of her options. If the club president continued to deny her request, she would stay and let her contract run down until mid-December. With the close of the transfer window approaching, the club would not have time to replace her.

Her agent received news that the North Carolina Courage were interested in Solaun joining the team. There were still two matches left in the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup and if she could get out of her contract in Cyprus, she could possibly join the Courage. 

A few days later, her release papers were finally sent to her virtually. She immediately purchased flights to get to Atlanta where her dad resides.

“Two or three days later my agent called and asked if I could go to North Carolina,” Solaun said. 

It was a simple instruction: just go.

The fact that her agent was not able to provide her with an address indicates that the priority was to get her to North Carolina then work out all other arrangements at a later time, and after her first two matches with the Courage, she immediately felt she was settling in well.

It is certainly a perfect fit. This current season she has made 19 appearances with the team.

“This year has definitely been the most rewarding year so far,” Solaun said. “I think having a good coach makes all the difference. In addition, to be surrounded by girls who are striving for the same things you are.” 

On Sunday, Oct. 10, Solaun was a second half substitute in a match against the Houston Dash. But, this time her entry on the pitch did not result in one of those special moments. Towards the end of the match, Solaun fell to the pitch clutching her right leg. She sat on the bench, overcome with emotion, and tears started to flow.

The fact that she sustained another injury is unfortunate. There are only a few players that have scored a goal at the World Cup. It is a moment some can only dream of. One might say her struggles are proportional to her successes. If her arduous journey is an indication of how she handles adversity, don’t expect her to quit.

Dakwa is a student at Elon University. He writes about professional soccer in North Carolina for L.A. Soccer Press. Follow him at @JDakwa on Twitter.