REIMS, France — Weak link. The biggest question. A drop-off in the line of stellar American goalkeepers.
Alyssa Naeher won’t touch the criticism there’s been of her – before she’s made her first start in a major tournament, mind you. Naeher instead will say all the right things about staying focused, not listening to the outside noise, believing in herself and working hard.
But her teammates? That’s a different story.
“Yeah,” midfielder Julie Ertz said, practically spitting out the word when asked if the comparisons to Hope Solo and the suggestions that Naeher can’t possibly fill her gloves bother the rest of the U.S. women.
“No one’s given her time yet,” Ertz said. “We know who she is. We train with her every day. We know how good she is.”
The U.S. begins play at the World Cup on Tuesday, against Thailand.
The comparisons to and questions about Solo, and Briana Scurry before her, are not unexpected nor are they out of bounds. Solo was perhaps the best goalkeeper the game has ever had, winner of the Golden Glove at the last two World Cups. Scurry is a Golden Glove winner, as well, and stood on her head when the United States beat China in penalties for the 1999 title.
Follow the two of them, and of course people are going to wonder how you’ll measure up.
After sitting behind Hope Solo, Alyssa Naeher is now the starting goalkeeper for the U.S. heading in the World Cup. (Photo: Julio Cortez, AP)
But the insinuation that it will be Naeher’s fault if the Americans don’t repeat as World Cup champions – something only Germany has done, mind you – is unfair. At least until she’s given reason to doubt her.
Which she hasn’t yet.
Though Naeher was part of the U.S. squad for both the 2015 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, she did not play in either tournament. Since Solo was effectively banned by U.S. Soccer following the Rio Olympics, Naeher is 32-3-4, including 21 shutouts, with a 0.74 goals-against average. The U.S. women have maintained their No. 1 ranking.
Naeher also was named the NWSL’s goalkeeper of the year in 2014, when she made a record 106 saves in 24 games.
“She’s really good. Great with her feet, great shot stopper,” said Ertz, who is teammates with Naeher in the NWSL with the Chicago Red Stars.
“I’m lucky enough to be able to play with her at club and here and to see how much she’s put into it and how prepared she is,” Ertz added. “That gives us confidence in itself, just knowing how ready she is.”
Part of the doubts about Naeher likely stem from her personality.
Solo looked fierce and acted even fiercer, as quick with her mouth as she was with her hands and feet. She also enjoyed the spotlight, competing on Dancing with the Stars and appearing, nude, on the cover of ESPN's The Body Issue.
Naeher is the opposite. She is quiet and unassuming, and visibly uncomfortable with public attention.
But do not mistake her reserve for weakness, Becky Sauerbrunn said. There is a steeliness behind that silence, with Sauerbrunn likening her to UFC fighter Holly Holm.
“She’s got a presence,” Sauerbrunn said. “And yeah, that presence is different from the past goalkeepers of this team, but it’s just as powerful and just as strong.
“In no way is our goalkeeping a weak link,” she added. “In no way.”
One of the few times Naeher will get animated is when she’s talking about the evolution of the goalkeeping position, and how the U.S. women's move to a more aggressive 4-3-3 formation requires goalkeepers to be more active.
Because the U.S. is pushing numbers forward, it has the potential to leave the backline exposed. That means Naeher has to be an integral, not occasional, part of the defense. It also means she has a role in starting the attack.
"She’s solid back there, good with her feet," coach Jill Ellis said. "I think the way this team plays, it's slightly different. We're really working hard to play out of back a lot and she handles the ball exceptionally well for us."
No, Naeher isn't Solo or Scurry. She's got her own style and her own strengths, and only in the next few weeks will we know whether that's good enough.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
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