If there is one certainty in soccer, it is this: The quickest road to becoming a winning soccer team is to have a great goalkeeper.
Your chances of winning a league, a tournament and, yes, a World Cup grow exponentially when you have a great goalkeeper minding your net. The position is a differentiator.
So you can imagine the angst of the U.S. women's national team coaching staff right now given that the one position you want steady and stable is about as unstable as it comes.
The World Cup is just more than four months away and at the moment, the United States is left without both a starting goalkeeper (Hope Solo has been suspended for 30 days) and a goalkeeper coach (more on this below). Add in that no other goalkeeper in the national team pool other than Solo has played even a minute -- one minute! -- of a World Cup or Olympic game since 2008, and you could understand if U.S. head coach Jillian Ellis has mild heart palpitations.
The glaring question is how the U.S. women can even be in this predicament. For years, we have known two things: 1. Solo can get injured; and 2. Her tendency to fly too close to the sun. Given those two scenarios, it seems almost irresponsible to not give a No. 2 goalkeeper time in games that matter over the last six years. It's like buying a house on a fault line and declining earthquake insurance. But the national team has had a consistent pattern of not giving time to the backup goalkeeper.
Solo was sent home Jan. 21 from the national team's training camp in Los Angeles after her husband, former NFL player Jerramy Stevens, was arrested and charged with a DUI while driving a U.S. Soccer van. Solo, alongside Stevens in the van, was not arrested, but failed to tell the U.S. coaching staff about the incident, which happened at 1:32 a.m. Solo was suspended for 30 days by U.S. Soccer, which told Solo she had to meet a series of stipulations to be eligible to return to the national team after the month-long suspension.
Only a week later, Paul Rogers, the goalkeeper coach for the U.S. women's team since 2009, announced that he was leaving to join the staff of MLS's Houston Dynamo. Rogers reportedly has long wanted to join a team with MLS, but the timing could not be worse for the U.S. women.
And although I think it's highly likely that Solo returns to the national team, you are not alone if you are asking just who are the backup goalkeepers for the United States right now, especially given they have two upcoming games: Feb. 8 in France and Feb. 13 in England.
Mind you, these backups are excellent goalkeepers, but they have never been asked to perform in goal at the highest level. Briana Scurry is the last player not named Hope Solo to actually play in goal for the United States in a World Cup, and that was back in 2007 (you probably don't need reminding on that one).
So let's take a look at the three goalkeepers named to the USWNT roster for the next two matches:
Nicole Barnhart | Age: 33 | Caps: 54
Analysis: Always the No. 2 goalkeeper, Barnhart was the backup at the 2008 Olympics, 2011 World Cup and 2012 Olympics. She was third string in the 2007 World Cup. Barnhart did not play in any of those tournaments. And she largely has not played in the last year and a half for the national team due to injury and the fact that Tom Sermanni, the coach of the U.S. team before Ellis, knew he already had a veteran, 30-something goalkeeper in Solo and was trying to find a younger backup. Barnhart won NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year honors in 2013 and helped FC Kansas City win the NWSL title in 2014. She is an excellent goalkeeper when healthy, and of the three backups, clearly the one with the most experience.
Last USWNT appearance: October 2013 vs. New Zealand; last started in June 2013.
Ashlyn Harris | Age: 29 | Caps: 4
Analysis: She won a WPS championship in 2011 with the Western New York Flash and now plays for the NWSL's Washington Spirit. Harris was the starting goalkeeper on the 2002 U-20 World Cup-winning team but has had a hard time breaking into the full national team. And just when Harris was poised to step in as the No. 2 goalkeeper, she suffered a broken finger while getting her one start at the World Cup qualifiers in October. Now almost fully recovered, she is trying to regain ground and confidence. A big personality with a ton of upside, she also is known to make the occasional big mistake in games.
Last USWNT appearance: Started October 2014 in a 6-0 win against Haiti.
Alyssa Naeher | Age: 26 | Caps: 1
Analysis: Naeher has extensive youth national team experience and was the starting goalkeeper for the U.S. U-20 team that won the 2008 World Cup. She was also named NWSL's Goalkeeper of the Year this past season with the Boston Breakers -- no small feat given they finished second to last. At the U.S. national team's January camp, with Harris still recovering from her finger injury, Naeher gained momentum and consistency. She is known as an excellent shot stopper that can make the brilliant save but still needs to evolve with her decision making.
Last USWNT appearance: Lone cap came in a December 2014 start against Argentina, a 7-0 U.S. thumping.
So there you have it. Three very good keepers with one thing missing -- they all lack big game experience. And now Ellis is left handcuffed with this dilemma: Does the United States have the time to blend in less experienced players like Harris or Naeher, or gamble with the experience of Barnhart, hoping she can stay healthy and last seven games at the World Cup? Do you now invest in both Harris and Naeher, or split time between Barnhart and one of the other two? Four months does not leave you a lot of time to make up that lost ground.
Look, I know it must be tempting to ride your horse until the end, especially when that horse is winning. And I know getting substantial, quality minutes for backup goalkeepers is always a challenge at the national team level. But this just all seems so preventable and, even worse, predictable. Let's hope the U.S. women do not pay the price for what should have been a very good return on investment: playing more goalkeepers when games mattered.