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Sports Saturday

How Alyssa Naeher went from WNBA dreams to No. 1 keeper

“She holds herself to a high standard, and the accountability factor for everyone else is raised because of that. When she has a goal, she commits to it until her legs are about to fall off.”

Daniel Bartel/isiphotos.com

Growing up, Red Stars goalie Alyssa Naeher dreamed of playing professional basketball. Every night before she went to bed, the future two-time World Cup champion would pray to make it in the WNBA.

“If I’m being honest, basketball was my first love,” she said. “I wanted to play basketball at UConn. We obviously didn’t really have a [pro women’s soccer league] of our own yet.”

She scored 2,000 points for her high school basketball team in Connecticut and was recruited by a few small colleges, but her career on the court eventually began to take a back seat to her career on the pitch.

It looks to be panning out. Naeher was a finalist for the Best FIFA Women’s Goalkeeper Award this year, adding to a long list of other accomplishments.

She’d started playing soccer with her twin sister, Amanda, at age 5. It wasn’t until she earned invitations to youth national team camps in her early high school years that she envisioned a real future in the game.

Alyssa Naeher #1 of the Chicago Red Stars watches with anticipation during a game between Chicago Red Stars and Sky Blue FC at MSU Soccer Park at Pittser Field on October 10, 2020 in Montclair, New Jersey.
Mike Lawrence/isiphotos.com

Her coach during her time with the U-17 youth national team, Erica Dambach, was impressed by her physical stature — ideal for a goalkeeper — as well as Naeher’s constant efforts to improve her game. After each camp, coaches would sit individually with players to break down their performances and outline what they should work on before the next camp. Most made little progress in a short amount of time. But not Naeher.

Dambach, an assistant for the U.S. women’s national team, would go on to coach Naeher again at Penn State. By the time Naeher graduated in 2009, she had helped Team USA win the 2008 U-20 FIFA Women’s World Cup, earning the Golden Glove as the tournament’s best goalkeeper.

She was quietly laying the groundwork to become the USWNT’s No. 1 keeper. In all their time together, Dambach doesn’t recall Naeher ever declaring her goal out loud.

“There was always this belief and understanding that was something she wanted as part of her future,” Dambach said. “You never questioned how great she wanted to be because of the way she trained and because of the intensity at which she went about her business off the field.”

Naeher’s uphill path to earning the No. 1 jersey was slow and methodical. Six years separated her World Cup win with the U-20 team and her debut with the senior national team. Coming up behind Hope Solo, she kept her head down and focused on what she could control, Dambach said, avoiding the comparisons made when she eventually did step into the No. 1 position.

“Obviously, Hope was the best at what she did for a very long time,” Naeher said. “To be able to learn from her and the rest of the goalkeeper pool, coaches and everyone I’ve been fortunate to train with over the last 12 years, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned how to be a pro, I’ve learned how to handle being in different roles on the team and what the expectations are.”

Naeher, who today has 64 appearances and 34 shutouts for the national team, says the biggest key for goalkeepers is consistency. It’s part of what made Red Stars coach Rory Dames push so hard to bring Naeher from Boston to Chicago in a trade in 2015. After a disappointing loss to FC Kansas City in a semifinal that year, Dames pulled players Christen Press and Julie Ertz aside individually, seeking their input on who would make a good goalkeeper for the Red Stars. Each responded with one name: Naeher.

It took over three months to make the deal, but Dames’ persistence paid off.

Naeher is now consistently the first to arrive at practice and the last to leave, something Dambach remembers about her at Penn State. It has set the tone for the entire Red Stars organization.

“I get to see the behind-the-scenes stuff,” Ertz said. “She holds herself to a high standard, and the accountability factor for everyone else is raised because of that. When she has a goal, she commits to it until her legs are about to fall off.”

Melissa Tamez/ISIPhotos.com

Naeher’s performance in the 2019 World Cup captivated fans worldwide — specifically a penalty save against England in the semifinals. From an outside perspective, the No. 1 goalkeeper job might seem as difficult to lose as it is to earn. But the truth is Naeher is competing with herself for it every day, whether she’s training alone on the roof of her garage in Chicago, kicking balls at a wall or visiting family in Charlotte, North Carolina, to work out with Amanda like they did when they were kids.

USWNT goalkeeper coach Philip Poole remembers a different sprawling save in the first half of the same match against England. That one more accurately symbolized Naeher’s daily work, not the one that got the most attention.

Naeher, of course, has never been one for attention.

“It wasn’t a coincidence,” Poole said. “Lightning didn’t strike. She’s been ready for that. It was a culmination of her hard work, her mindset and her professionalism all coming together on the same day.”