By Andrew Both
(Reuters) – United States goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher has big boots to fill at the Women’s World Cup as she belatedly earns a chance to be the leading lady on the biggest stage after graduating from her previous role as understudy.
Naeher was on the bench at the 2015 World Cup and 2016 Olympics when the larger-than-life Hope Solo was the custodian in goal for the Americans.
Solo, an outsize personality who had a commanding presence in the box, made the goalkeeping spot her own for eight years and more than 200 appearances, including at five consecutive major tournaments.
But when Solo was suspended by U.S. Soccer for derogatory comments about the Swedish team at the Rio Olympics, coach Jill Ellis entrusted Naeher with the job.
Nearly three years later the 31-year-old Chicago Red Stars player is poised to finally play in a World Cup instead of looking on from the bench.
Yet though Naeher has made 45 international appearances, questions have been asked about whether she will rise to the occasion in France in the manner Solo did for all those years.
Solo’s predecessor, Briana Scurry, was one to broach the subject.
“There’s one difference this World Cup team has, the U.S.A., that no other team previously has had, and that’s a question mark at the goalkeeper position,” Scurry said at a reunion for former national team players in New York City.
Naeher was subsequently asked about Scurry’s remark, and she deftly handled it with a poise that her team mates hope she can similarly display on the field in France, where the Americans will be defending their world title.
“I stay focused on me,” Naeher said recently.
“And I am trying to be my best version of myself every single day. I compare myself to who I was yesterday and try to be better each day. I don’t compare to anything else. I try to be Alyssa and that’s all I can control.”
Scurry subsequently expanded on her “question mark” comment by explaining that she was not trying to impugn Naeher’s competence, but that one never knows how a player will perform on their debut on the game’s biggest stage.
Naeher knows that being Solo’s successor brings pressure — “she was the best at what she did for a very long time” – and is trying to stamp her own mark on the job.
“It’s a very unique position and you bring your personality to it,” she said.
“I’ve been fortunate to train with a lot of great goalkeepers over my years and I think I’ve taken pieces from each of them.”
Modern soccer has evolved in that coaches are increasingly looking at their goalkeeper not only to keep the ball out of the net, but also to initiate attacks by effective distribution.
That is not lost on Naeher.
“Goalkeepers are now not just shot-stoppers but you’re an 11th player,” she said.
“The game has kind of grown in that regard, and we have to play a little bit more and do more with our feet, so I’ve put a lot of time into that and making sure I’m comfortable and confident in that role.”
The U.S. open their World Cup campaign against Thailand next Tuesday in Group F, which also comprises Sweden and Chile.
(Writing by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Additional reporting by Amy Nennery in New York City; Editing by Christian Radnedge)