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2019 Women's World Cup

The USWNT goalkeeper questions are entirely predictable

Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer

It has been nearly three years since Hope Solo last suited up for the United States women’s national team. And yet her legacy burns brightly on multiple fronts.

The obvious one is that Hope Solo was always going to be difficult to replace. Her own emergence in the middle of the 2000s made for a near-seamless transition from Briana Scurry, and gave the U.S. nearly two decades of peerless goalkeepers on the international stage.

The intermittent social media lamenting about goalkeeper being the Achilles’ heel for this U.S. team heading into the 2019 World Cup might be fair, but that was always going to be expected. Scurry came along in the nascent years of international women’s soccer and was the first to claim unwavering ownership of the role. Solo advanced the position further with her athleticism and larger-than-life persona, and her name remains a topic heading into the 2019 World Cup. The pipeline rarely produces two consecutive generations of iconic players, let alone three. Solo’s successor was always likely to struggle in living up to her game.

That successor is Alyssa Naeher, who has had her nose in front of the competition since the moment Solo was booted off the squad in August 2016. But Naeher only had seven caps at that point and her main competition at the time, Ashlyn Harris, had eight (they had one and six, respectively, at the 2015 World Cup where they were unused backups to Solo). U.S. head coach Jill Ellis had so staunchly committed to Solo as her No. 1 goalkeeper that Naeher and Harris rarely had a chance to play. When they did get one, it was a result of Solo being suspended 30 days following an incident in which her husband was charged with DUI while driving the team van, during a training camp in early 2015.

Solo’s suspension forced Ellis to use Harris for two friendlies in February 2015, but after that, Solo was the only goalkeeper to see action in the final eight matches leading to the World Cup. Naeher and Harris combined to see action in five matches during the team’s victory tour, but only one of those — for Naeher — was a full, 90-minute match. The lead-up to the 2016 Olympics was much of the same. Naeher got two full matches and came off the bench in another. Harris saw the same amount of international game action as every other goalkeeper in the country: none.

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U.S. Soccer was complicit in Solo’s inordinate amount of playing time as the federation beat the drums on her approach to 200 caps and 100 shutouts, both unprecedented for an international goalkeeper. Both arrived in the nick of time — the 100th shutout in the penultimate warm-up for the Olympics and the 200th cap during the group stage — before Solo was seen as dead weight and dismissed for post-match remarks after the U.S. fell to Sweden in the quarterfinals.

The goalkeeper battle was considered an open competition heading to the 2017 SheBelieves Cup, and Naeher appeared to emerge the leader over Harris despite a dreadful final match against France. And because of the lack of time given to any goalkeeper not named Solo in the many friendlies from 2014-2016, Ellis was left with a decidedly inexperienced goalkeeper pool. That created a scenario in which Ellis was forced to give Naeher major minutes to get her experience. And it’s a factor in where the situation stands today: Naeher as the No. 1, but not with the same stranglehold on the position that Scurry and Solo usually had, and a pair of backups with precious few minutes on the international stage.

Ahead of last summer’s Tournament of Nations, Ellis said she was going to give all the goalkeeping minutes to Naeher. That sounded curious until the coach’s explanation that Naeher needed to get a feel for playing three matches in close proximity to prepare for the World Cup. Naeher also played the entirety of the 2017 Tournament of Nations while Harris was out injured.

With only 90 minutes of friendly play left before the real games start June 11, Ellis will again head to a World Cup with a pair of inexperienced backups. There isn’t much Harris hasn’t faced as a goalkeeper, but meaningful international minutes are on the list. Adrianna Franch pushed her way into the No. 3 position but her only cap so far was after Naeher picked up a knock in the SheBelieves Cup. It’s not like any team goes to a World Cup depending on backup goalkeepers, but considering that in the lineup we think Ellis is most likely to start there will be two 100-cap players on the bench, it would seem a better approach could be found for spreading the keeper wealth.

At the dawn of Ellis’ experimentation phase that followed the Olympics, the coach said that in an ideal U.S. national team world, the days of being capped 100 times were soon to be over. Players should be pushed harder, she said, rotated more and developed better. But so far that has not manifested itself at the goalkeeper position. Hope Solo was so good, and so omnipresent, that the current pool is having trouble catching up. So we’re left with Naeher leading a band of relatively inexperienced backups heading to the start of the World Cup.

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Photo: Hami Khangura

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