Harris keeps pushing herself to excel in competitive US goalkeeping scene

Jess Fainberg June 27, 2014 28

Ashlyn Harris made her third career start on June 19 in a 2-2 draw with France in East Hartford, Conn. (Photo Courtesy Michelle Morrison, The Soccer Desk)

TAMPA, Fla. – After climbing her way through U.S. Soccer’s youth national teams, goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris earned her third international cap at the senior level against France in a 2-2 draw on June 19th. In camp prior to the France friendlies, Harris was excited to be back with the national team, but said, “I haven’t made it yet.”

The U.S. women’s national team pool features five elite goalkeepers; 219 caps have been earned between the five, however, longtime starting goalkeeper Hope Solo has 152 of those, and longtime backup Nicole Barnhart has 54. In the opinion of many, including goalkeeper coach Paul Rogers, Solo ranks as the No. 1 goalkeeper in the world.

“Training with Hope everyday is a blessing for me,” Harris said during the United States’ recent visit to Tampa, Fla. “I learn so much from her and she takes me under her wing. She is helping me along my way, that’s a good feeling.”

Harris, 28, is in her second season with the National Women’s Soccer League’s Washington Spirit.

In 2010, former St. Louis Athletica goalkeeper coach and current U.S. goalkeeper coach Rogers drafted Harris to the now-defunct Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) team. As a professional, Harris’ first duty was backing up Solo.

“She was a typical college goalkeeper with a fair amount of natural ability and raw talent,” Rogers said of Harris. “She was obviously very athletic, and coming out of college I think she was a bit unsure of what she was going to do with her career.”

Harris has a special relationship with Rogers. She credits him for molding her into the goalkeeper she is today. As both the St. Louis Athletica goalkeeper coach and U.S. goalkeeper coach, Rogers decided to take a look at Harris on the international level. He felt the transition was a big step for her.

“There were a lot of growing pains for her because she was raw. There were a lot of technical issues that she had never been told before in college,” Rogers said.

Out of high school, Harris committed to play for legendary coach Anson Dorrance at the University of North Carolina. Before ever suiting up for UNC injuries plagued Harris. She suffered ACL tears two years in a row, as well as a major thumb injury. In 2006, she was able to come back and play the last part of the regular season for the Tar Heels. She won three NCAA titles at UNC.

In 2010, Harris became a regular call up for the senior level national team camps.

“I was so raw when I first met him.” Harris said. “I was super athletic but not good enough technically, not good enough mentally, and very inconsistent. He’s just hammering into my brain the last few years about being consistent and being hungry and just doing my job and doing it well.”

Harris made the decision to leave home and play overseas after WPS folded in 2012 – the second U.S. pro league to go under. She signed with FCR 2001 Duisburg in Germany. She played seven games for the club before returning back to the States to play in the newly formed NWSL.

Styles and techniques are different in each country. For field players, going overseas is fundamentally different. Learning new tactics, and playing a different style benefit those who choose to play in different leagues around the world. For Harris, it was an opportunity to slow down and work on being in more control.

“When I was in Germany, a lot was focused on power and explosiveness and technical ability. Technical, tactical, everything there is just very structured.” Harris explained. “It was a good balance for me because I came in and I was so athletic and I was so quick. That’s what American’s are known for. It was good to kind of take a step back and work on the things that maybe I wasn’t so good at.”

In 2013, Harris was allocated to the Spirit. For the first time in her career, a team she was a part of finished last in the league. Despite a head-coaching change midseason, the young Spirit struggled throughout the season. Harris struggled with the team’s results.

“It was a building year. I had to learn a lot about myself because it wasn’t enough to just show up every day,” Harris said. “I had to regroup and realize that I needed to point within and figure out what I could be doing to better my performances, my team, good communication and leadership.”

Following the disappointing 2013 NWSL season, Harris signed a short-term contract with Swedish Damallsvenskan powerhouse Tyreso. During her time in Sweden, she trained with the goalkeeper coach of the Swedish men’s national team. Harris was the first female he ever coached.

“It was phenomenal,” she said. “All he knew was how to train a male goalkeeper, so that’s what he did with me. I really learned a lot from him and even though it was three and a half months it was a good stepping stone for me.”

At Tyreso, Harris played alongside U.S. teammates Ali Krieger, Whitney Engen, Christen Press, and Meghan Klingenberg. The team also featured international superstars Marta and Vero Boquete. Before leaving for the NWSL season, Harris helped the team into the final eight of the UEFA Women’s Champions League, and Tyreso eventually lost to Wolsfsburg in the final.

The game against France marked Harris’s third start for the USWNT.

Harris is happy with her progress, but she is still hungry for the future. For Harris, of the biggest struggles has been the pressure. The pressure she puts on herself keeps her going.

“I have to be good; I have to be damn good,” she said. “I have so many other people chomping at my heels wanting to be in my position and I just have to keep being consistent and keep staying hungry. The biggest struggle is staying here.”

According to Rogers, Harris is fighting for the No. 2 spot right now. Along with Solo and Barnhart, goalkeepers Jill Loyden (10 caps) and Alyssa Naeher (uncapped) are in the goalkeeping pool for the Jill Ellis’ U.S. side.

“If you were to name the top 20 goalkeepers in the world, you would put Ash well in that group,” Rogers said. “She’s established herself as a top professional goalkeeper. It leaves me with tough decisions here at the national team level. She’s got a good future as an international goalkeeper.”

As Harris continues her growth – she says she is “just tapping into her peak – she credits Rogers with helping to push her to the next level.

“Paul demands a lot out of me,” Harris said. “He’s very attention to detail. If you come watch our training sessions, your feet your hands your knees your chest your butt, everything is broken down and the smallest margins make the biggest difference. We videotape everything we analyze everything. Not catching a ball clean is not good enough.

“He brings out a really good quality in all of us. He really focuses on our technique and training us like men. He hits the ball harder than probably most females will ever face and that’s a good thing. He does a great job of preparing us. That will help the team, that will help me, and that’s what’s been my focus.”

And with a goalkeeping pool as deep as the United States’ is, there will always be competition to push each other.

[Editor’s note: Interviews with Harris and Rogers were conducted prior to the June 14 match between the U.S. and France]

  • jolly rogers

    Hang in there, Ash. You may be just a conviction from moving up the chart. In the meantime start catching rather than punching crosses.

    • canyon

      i hope she never will be the number 1 in the NT..

      • Guest

        Won’t happen she’s too close in age with the others and she’s injury prone. She will probably just hold down the spot for a while until one of the younger keepers are ready like what they did with Hope.

    • Guest

      dear god I hope not. The number 1 keeper should at least have been the alternate for a major tournament before starting in goal for a WC. Harris has not done so. If Hope is kicked out (and that’s a huge if), I hope we go with Barnie.

      • morgs

        No offense and not that I disagree that Barnhart has more experience in the event that there are issues with Solo in the near future, but who came up with the rule that a #1 keeper should have been an alternate (and by that I presume you mean a backup) at a major tournament at least? Plenty of the current men’s #1 choice keepers never had any senior WC tournament experience before being thrust to the starting spot, a lot of them at relatively young age. Harris has plenty of youth WC experience and was the starting GK for the team that became a CL finalist. That’s plenty of experience. Being someone who has sat on the bench during a WC or Olympics makes no difference. Again, I do think that for the near future, Barnhart has the upper hand due to experience alone, but the thought that Harris has no major tournament experience is incorrect

        • canyon

          ok..nice try..go play with your balls now.

          • morgs

            ? Not even sure what warranted this comment. Based on your other comment in this thread, I would guess that an actual football discussion is way above your level. Move along now.

          • veritas

            Stupidity on canyon’s part!

        • Guest

          I appreciate your intelligent comment. My reservation is not so much with Harris as my mistrust of taking a GK with very little international experience at the NT level as number 1 to a major tournament. If Harris earns number 2 spot, and Solo for whatever reason (injury, legal, mental stress) goes down, Harris would be number 1 with very little time to adjust. Angerer played back up in 2003. Solo in 2004. Barnie in 2007. It’s more common in the men’s game for keepers to have less country caps and more club but the club competition on the women’s side is nowhere near NT level.

          • morgs

            I see what you mean, but from what I recollect from both Solo and Angerer, they were backup in name only, never saw much time besides their initial few caps until like 2005 for Solo and like 2007 for Angerer (like a decade after her first cap). Solo credited her stint in Sweden as her career maker and Angerer developed a ton at club level. Both played sporadically if any at all before they took over as #1. Barnie, yes. Plenty of international experience. Again, I would still place Barnie ahead of Harris on the depth chart due to that experience if there were upcoming issues with Solo, but i wouldn’t discount a decent stint in the Champions league and multiple youth world cup appearances as little international experience. I appreciate your point about how the men develop at club level. i do think though that the existence of the 2 previous leagues and present NWSL has served very well in finding and developing NTers.

  • NYRick

    Rogers: “If you were to name the top 20 goalkeepers in the world, Ash is in that group.” Huh? Talk about a backhanded slight. Message to Rogers: If the supposed top 3-4 US keepers “aren’t” in the top 20 in the world then you are either:

    1) Incompetent
    2) A horrible judge of talent
    3) Bias (which has been suggested in the past)

    With the talent pool to chose from, and the resources available, how can the USWNT not have 3-4 of the Top 20 Keepers. Laughable really.

    • kloppo

      yeah I was going to say…. Top 20 of all time maybe. Can anyone even name 20 international class keepers in the women’s side still playing right now? And by international I mean world class, not she the #2 for *insert random Eastern European country*. If you one is going to make the argument that a keeper is fighting for #2 in your USA depth chart, she better be top 10 at least.

      • kloppo

        Wanted to add, it’s nice to read more in depth about the keepers discussing technique and training environments …etc.. For instance, no idea that TFF employed the men’s Swedish NT GK coach and that Harris trained with him. Must have been a great experience technical wise for her. I can only imagine what it would be like for some of the top women keepers if they were to be trained by the likes of an Oliver Kahn or Andreas Kopke.

        • morSOC

          Actually one of the keys to coaching men/women keepers is to help women keepers compensate for “disadvantages” of height and explosiveness. Switching from one gender to the other is usually not an easy transition for most coaches.

          • kloppo

            fair enough about the physical differences. Having a perspective of both men and women physical differences is good, but at the same time, a GK is a GK. The game plan, play processing and responses to a goal situation should be the same.
            I know there is a saying that goes along the lines of “those who can’t do, teach/coach”, but at the same time, those who CAN do are the ones who also have the most experience dealing with game time situations. From what I know, most if not all of the GK coaches of men’s teams (particularly the ones with great goalkeeping traditions like Germany and Spain) have been international level GKs with long careers. Women keepers should be able to benefit from that type of experience.

          • Steglitz49

            It is only a question of time till we see the 6’2″ female goalie. Candace Parker is 6’4″.

          • NYRick

            Excellent point.

  • Xe

    So great to see Rogers say she’s fighting for the #2 spot. It’s been a long time coming. The improvements she’s made over the past year alone have been staggering and she’s constantly put herself in positions to better herself. It’s obvious she’s used last season with DC as a learning experience and will likely be a better teammate for it. She’s definitely stepped into a bigger leadership role this year for the club. So pleased she’s starting to see the rewards for her hard work.

  • newsouth

    she can’t handle high balls, is the shortest 5’9” guardian i’ve ever seen. if she were ever #1, i’d push numbers forward against NT and turn it into a shootout. keep all shots flat and at her finger tips, nothing to her left/right waist high

    • Amy Brookheimer

      She plays smaller than her actual height (5’9″ seems to be slightly generous), but her lateral movements and footwork have compensated for that. It seems like she’s been working improving her vertical game. She’s had some really nice parries and full extension saves this season. For me, her biggest weakness is decision making and coming off her line way too much. She doesn’t need to bring a lawn chair into goal like Loyden, but there are other ways for her to stay awake and mentally checked into the game.

      • Steglitz49

        Ayumi Kaihori is 5’7″. It was enough one enchanted evening in Frankfurt 3 years ago. We will soon see the 6’2″ female goalie. Don’t worry.

        • Amy Brookheimer

          We’ve had a couple of 6’+ GKs in the pool. KJ Spisak, for example (she might not have any senior caps, though). Most of our GKs seem to be 5’8″-5’10”. It’s not the height or the size so much as what one does with it. I’d be curious to see what the GKs’ wingspans are.

          • Steglitz49

            The span = your height, normally.

            The greatest man of them all, Gordon Banks, stood 6’1″ but he never looked very tall.

          • kloppo

            indeed. I’ll take an athletic and explosive GK who can position appropriately (and that comes more from experience) over a lumbering giant. Casillas at 6ft1 was just as good as a 6ft6 Cech who still also can’t reach everything. Or new hero Ochoa who is only 6ft tall. As for wingspan, it’s usually in accordance with your height, but some people do have much longer wingspan than an average person their height normally would. Case in point Michael Phelps. Honestly, unless the person in question is average height, the height doesn’t matter as much as long as the GK has a vertical that at the very least allows her to touch the top crossbar. The rest depends much more on positioning.

          • Jess

            I think its more how far they can reach when they dive diagonally or sideways which is equally about height as it is about explosiveness and power from the legs. To be honest it doesn’t take much to be able to touch the top crossbar I’m just over 5’4″ and I could easily hit the top crossbar when I played at GK in high school so that isn’t much of a feat. Someone at 5’7″ could be able to get to a further ball than someone who is 5’11” because of how well they push off when they dive.

      • Craigaroo

        You see or hear about Brittany Cameron’s game against the Thorns last night? That’s why you gotta love ‘keepers like Cameron and Harris sometimes.

  • wosofan

    Why she still struggles to handle corner kicks and high crosses is an utter mystery. Surely this must be a point of emphasis for her and Rogers whenever they train together. By contrast, this may be Barnhart’s biggest asset, her ownership of the air in the penalty box.

  • Jess

    To me Ash is the #2 but we’ll see how long that lasts when Franch gets back to being healthy and progresses more.