Naeher sets sights on World Cup with her usual calm
When Alyssa Naeher was a college freshman, a senior Penn State teammate told her she couldn't afford to be intimidated.
The U.S. national team goalkeeper still carries the advice that Ali Krieger gave her as she readies for the upcoming World Cup. She's not only undaunted by the opponents she faces, she's ignoring the outside noise that's so often directed at her position.
Naeher has the unenviable task of taking over for Hope Solo, one of the game's best-ever goalkeepers. Solo was in goal when the U.S. won the World Cup four years ago in Canada, though she was dismissed from the team following the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
Comparisons are inevitable.
"For me, I think the biggest thing is not getting wrapped up in what other people think, what other people say. At the end of the day, I can only control me, control who I am, the type of player I am, the way that I play and the way that I carry myself," she said. "That's the great thing about this sport and the position specifically, is that there is no black and white way to go about it. We're all different and we all bring our own personality and uniqueness to the team and to the position."
Naeher, 30, is known for her calm and steady demeanor. Before games she chills out with crossword puzzles and teammates say she's unflappable — a good trait for a goalkeeper.
She's also soft-spoken, which kind of flies in the face of the need to yell downfield at times at the players in front of her. She laughs and said she shouts when it's needed.
"I think you just kind of switch it on when it comes to games in general. You know, you get in the moment with it. It's a necessity," she said. "It's big part of the position, making saves and keeping the ball out of the back of the net is obviously task number one and is the most important thing for us as goalkeepers, but then all the organization trying to prevent attacks and stuff before they even get to me is almost as important."
Naeher, coming off a shoulder injury that kept her out of the final two games of the recent SheBelieves Cup, is healthy heading into Thursday's exhibition match against Australia in Colorado. It is the first of five final friendly matches the U.S. team will play heading into the World Cup, which kicks off June 7 in France.
Naeher is essentially the team's No. 1 in goal heading into the World Cup, with Ashlyn Harris and Adrianna Franch options off the bench. Franch and Harris took turns starting in the SheBelieves Cup in Naeher's absence: Franch earned her first national team start in goal in a 2-2 draw with England, while Harris posted a shutout in a 1-0 victory over Brazil.
But the group as a whole is under greater scrutiny as the defending champions approach the World Cup. The team is 2-1-2 so far this year, after going 18-0-2 last season. Critics say the national team should have focused more on developing goalkeepers during Solo's reign.
"I want my teammates to feel the utmost confidence with any three of us goalkeepers in goal," Harris said. "I think we have an incredible goalkeeper unit. At any moment any of us can step in and have big performances and play in big games and make impacts. And I think that's what we've showed. It's a collective effort every day, we work our tails off every single day, and only one gets to play and that's difficult."
Naeher, who also plays for the Chicago Red Stars in the National Women's Soccer League, made her debut with the senior national team in 2014. She has 41 appearances with 22 shutouts.
She said she learned her most valuable soccer lesson at Penn State. It came courtesy of Krieger, who was a senior when Naeher was a freshman. Krieger is now a teammate on the national team, called up for the exhibition games against Australia on Thursday and Belgium on Sunday in Los Angeles.
"I was very, very quiet at that time, especially coming in as a freshman. And I felt like, who am I to be telling this All-American senior ahead of me what to do, right?" Naeher said. "And she kind of pulled me aside and was like, 'You have to open your mouth. You're not yelling at me. You're not saying anything. You're not helping me. You're not giving information. We need that. We need that from you. We need that kind of going forward.' To me that was a big kind of a turning point. It was like, 'Oh she wants to hear my voice.' So I've kept that with me."
Naeher and Harris were both included on the roster for the World Cup in Canada, and Naeher was Solo's backup at the 2016 Olympics. Coach Jill Ellis is expected to take three goalkeepers to France.
Naeher is looking at the opportunity this summer with her usual composure.
"I've kind of found over the years that it's best to just keep that even mindset, not too high and not too low," she said. "There's obviously a lot of defensive strategies and changes leading into a game, and within a game. The more that I can kind of just stay in the moment and kind of take it all in, the better position I'll put myself in."