Alyssa Naeher a quiet but comfortable presence in the net for U.S. women
MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. -- The starting goalkeeper for the U.S. women's national team begins most mornings with a cup of coffee and a crossword puzzle.
Sorry, that's about the extent of the drama you're going to get with Alyssa Naeher. These are quieter times for a position so often in the spotlight over the past decade.
Quieter off the field, at least.
Among the loudest ovations that preceded Sunday's U.S. game against Denmark was the roar that greeted Hope Solo when her name was announced during a ceremony commemorating her 200 international appearances. The reception wasn't much of a surprise. Polarizing though she was through years of repeated controversy off the field, Solo never lost the audible support of a sizable portion of any crowd. For many, what always appeared to matter most was what she did on the field. And few, perhaps none, ever did that better. But as Solo, 36, runs for the vacant U.S. Soccer presidency, national team coach Jill Ellis said recently that she hasn't spoken to or about the goalkeeper in the context of a return to the field and reiterated her focus on those now on the roster.
Without either party expressly acknowledging it, the Solo era for the national team is over.
The crowd was more muted when Naeher's name was announced among the starting lineup. Certainly not hostile in any way, just, well, quieter. Perhaps some still wanted Solo. Or wished to see Ashlyn Harris. Maybe they just didn't know Naeher well enough to have an opinion. The quiet wouldn't have bothered her. More than eight years after she debuted for the national team, she is comfortable with the solitude that breeds introspection and independence. It in some ways defines her ascent to the place on the depth chart she unequivocally occupies.
"Coming into this camp, she's the No. 1," Ellis said. "I think she's done well, she looks good -- done well in testing, done well on the field. Just watching the things that I have. She's our most experienced goalkeeper right now and one I want to continue to invest in. Alyssa, she got all of the big games last year and was fairly consistent."
Amidst the blend of new and old that makes up a national team that for a stretch against the Danes featured both Stanford sophomore Tierna Davidson in her debut and Carli Lloyd in her 247th appearance, Naeher exists in her own space. She isn't new. She has the World Cup hardware to prove it after backing up Solo in the 2015 tournament. But precisely because Solo so rarely took a seat, Naeher will turn 30 this April before she makes her 30th appearance for the national team. And that despite making 13 starts a year ago.
If she is comfortable in her own space, it does not make her a loner. Indeed, as a twin, she has never been that. Among those who know her well is Julie Ertz, her roommate during the January training camp but also with the Chicago Red Stars.
"She is a creature of habit," Ertz said. "She knows herself very well. She's very introverted but is an extrovert at the same time. She enjoys her alone time and she's huge in crossword puzzles and very intelligent and smart but has a huge heart and cares for everyone."
About those crosswords. It is perhaps not that she is particularly addicted to them, but their place in her routine offers some insight into how she approaches the world beyond the clues.
"We're so on the go all the time," Naeher explained. "Whether it's we're coming in and out of camp, we're back in our NWSL market, we're in our offseason so we get to go home for a bit, wherever home may be -- and sometimes you aren't even going home, you're going where you can find training. Something I found that was helpful in all the chaos of being on the move was if I could at least start my day the same way then it would give me some semblance of normalcy."
It is the routine of introspection but also independence. Those traits, her initial nervousness at straying so far beyond her comfort zone aside, allowed her to thrive when she signed to play professionally in Germany around the time of the demise of Women's Professional Soccer in 2011. She adjusted to playing in a new league and organizing a defense used to operating in a different language, but it wasn't just the experience on the field. Living on her own, she figured out everyday life in a foreign language, from buying groceries to opening a bank account.
She did her thing, she learned, she was better when the next challenge arrived, whether that was winning NWSL goalkeeper of the year honors after returning to the United States with the Boston Breakers or moving on as a high-profile trade acquisition for the Chicago Red Stars.
If rarely seen in international games over the past decade, she carved out a significant presence at every other level. She just did it quietly, like everything else.
"Obviously as a goalkeeper there is a lot of information that needs to come communication-wise," Naeher said. "I don't want to panic somebody when they don't need to panic. So it isn't as much the volume as the tone in what I say, differentiating between the urgency of different situations. I try to be more of a calming presence, which is more how my personality is anyway."
While she has good size and agility and holds her own as a shot stopper, the 5-foot-9 Naeher isn't Solo's equal athletically. That isn't much of a slight. Solo was so far ahead of the evolution of the sport in that regard that the world is still waiting for the next keeper like her, let alone version 2.0. But if Naeher is going to leave her own imprint on a position dominated for more than two decades by just two players in this country, Solo and Briana Scurry, it will likely come through her ability to set her own team in motion. It is essential to Ellis, and it is one of Naeher's best assets.
"It's always been a big piece for goalkeeping, but with how we're being asked to play now, it's a really big piece of we have the ball and we can start the attack," Naeher said of distribution. "It's finding that balance and understanding when to push and when to try and go, but also realizing you don't have to hit the home run yourself. You don't want to put your teammates in bad situations, you want to set them up to be able to go forward and attack. ...
"And then just having a lot of different options to use, whether you want to be able to throw it, drop kick it, side volley it, play super simple and just roll it back to a checking center midfielder who can then set play."
What that then leaves is the question of aura. Opponents and teammates alike knew that the best athlete on the field might well be in the American goal when Solo played. She was loud. She was demanding. And everyone knew she could back it up. What that was worth to the United States in any given game was impossible to measure but also undeniably present. What last year was about for the United States, and what will continue this year, is figuring out what presence Naeher wields.
"I think Alyssa is the first to say she could be louder," Ellis said. "I think when you're in with her every day, you see that there is a presence in her consistency. I hear her talking and all that, but when people see her all the time in training and see how consistent she can be, that gives you confidence as well. Yeah, she's not going to be a showy person. It's just not in her nature to be, 'Hey, look at me,' but I think there is a confidence and resolve in her that believes she's deserving to be here and can get the job done."
There are some positions that look like prizes but offer only impossibility. The person who follows Anson Dorrance as coach at North Carolina will know this, just as the pitchers who followed Cat Osterman at Texas did. Success is impossible because almost by definition, the person who follows cannot be his or her predecessor. Maybe that is so for any U.S. goalkeeper who follows Solo. After the wins, the saves and the presence, maybe no one can live up to those memories.
But if you're looking for someone comfortable in her own space, Naeher is more than qualified.
"She hopefully feels the commitment and the investment made in her, in terms of making sure she has had the games that are of more significance to get that experience," Ellis said. "Because she just needs that experience."