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Run of Play: Keepers Are Doing It for Themselves

Haley Kopmeyer re-signed with Reign through the 2018 NWSL season. (Photo Copyright Clark Linehan for The Equalizer)

Haley Kopmeyer took home POTW honors in a weekend full of great goalkeeping. (Photo Copyright Clark Linehan for The Equalizer)

It’s always hard to temper expectations on opening weekend. A six-month offseason feels far longer, and the glimpses we get during preseason do little more than leave us salivating to see how the teams have improved, where new faces will pop up, what surprises await us in the lineups.

And our expectations are often disappointed. Preseason is only a month long as it is. International players take longer to arrive, and those who play for their national teams miss time (nearly two weeks in the case of the USWNT), often leaving preferred XIs with mere days to train together before the first game. More than one coach expressed to me their frustration at the limitations of the NWSL preseason.

That said, I found myself struggling not to be dissatisfied with nearly every defense last weekend. Getting caught in possession, poor clearances, difficulty maintaining shape – even the most veteran of defenders showed their rust.

Fortunately for most teams, and to the entertainment of the fans, the goalkeeping made up for it. Vertical leaps, punches, and one spectacular diving header – the netminders ruled the day.

Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising. Out of the ten starting goalkeepers this weekend, seven have been capped at the senior international level. Two of the remaining three have seen time with youth national teams, and the lone keeper without international experience, Haley Kopmeyer, has long been mentioned in USWNT conversations (at least by fans and media). It’s possibly some of the best goalkeeping talent assembled at one time in the league.

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As the game of soccer evolves, so must the goalkeeping. More and more often, we expect the keeper to be the fifth defender, sweeping wider and wider areas of the pitch as even central defense pushes high. When keepers play too conservatively, as Alyssa Naeher did in the 15th minute of Chicago’s game against Houston, staying on her line as she went 1v1 with Kealia Ohai instead of closing down the angle, it’s easier for forwards to slip it past them (far post, in that scenario).

Kopmeyer, confronted with the speed of Sky Blue’s attack, came off her line more than once to preserve Seattle’s 1-1 draw with the Jersey team, including a lightning fast sliding kick at one point. But no player on any team was more audacious than Orlando netminder Ashlyn Harris. As Christine Sinclair bore down on net, Ali Krieger just a step behind, Harris shot out of her box for a jaw-dropping diving header. Note – because she cut off the attack before Sinclair could get a shot off, this doesn’t even count as a save.

The pure athleticism that’s always been a requirement for goalkeepers was on display in more ways than charging out of the box. Adrianna Franch of the Portland Thorns, despite making several poor decisions, showed off her excellent shot-stopping skills late in the game against Orlando.

Meanwhile, Stephanie Labbé dazzled the Washington home crowd, producing one highlight-reel save after another, including this one, where she leapt in the air to touch Debinha’s rocket over the crossbar. It’s a significant tell that despite losing the game, Labbé came in second in Player of the Week voting.

An often overlooked role in goalkeeping is intelligence. It’s what separates the great shot stoppers from the great goalkeepers: the ability to track the ball, to read plays before they happen, to communicate with defenders and organize a box amidst set piece chaos. Perhaps no keeper in the league defines that more than FCKC veteran Nicole Barnhart, who in my opinion has consistently been the best keeper in the four years (and counting) of the league. In fact, it’s so normal for Barnhart to be a brick wall for KC that she, like Becky Sauerbrunn in front of her, is quite often overlooked when it comes to accolades. It’s Barnie. Of course she saved it. Watch below as she first does just enough to tip a ball into the crossbar, then manages to get her body down and track it through traffic before making the second stop.

As mentioned above, Labbé came in second in POTW voting despite a stellar performance against North Carolina in which she recorded more saves than her team had shots. Any other week would likely have seen the Canadian international take first prize, but it was another keeper who claimed the bragging rights as Kopmeyer nearly single-handedly snatched two points from Sky Blue. She also came quite close to taking all three points, diving correctly and missing Sarah Killion’s penalty kick by inches in the 62nd minute. Time and again Kopmeyer pushed herself to do just enough, often getting only one hand on the ball to prevent it from finding the back of the net.

Should we be concerned that two goalkeepers took the top spots in player of the week voting? Not at all. After all, a strong goalkeeping performance is certainly preferable to the opposite, as anyone who joined me in watching 26 goals get scored over four games in one weekend during the 2016-17 W-League season can attest.

Defenses will get better as rookies settle, partnerships are formed, and chemistry develops. But so will the attackers, and the chances that were blown – Stephanie McCaffrey was gifted a goal from Janine Van Wyk but sent it off the post, and both Jasmyne Spencer and Katie Stengel missed open nets – will soon be on target. So it’s a very good thing that the keepers are already on their games, because they’ll need to be.

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