Replacing Hope: USWNT goalkeeper battle wide open, with little experience
Hope Solo is gone, run off by U.S. Soccer after calling the Swedes “cowards” at last year's Olympics -- that on top of so many other things -- and, no, she's not coming back.
That leaves the U.S. women's national team without an iconic goalkeeper for the first time since Briana Scurry stepped into the Yanks' nets 23 years ago -- and several goalkeepers, a few of them with virtually no international experience, the opportunity to claim the No. 1 job ahead of the 2019 Women's World Cup.
"I'm OK not having a No. 1. I don't feel the need. Because of where we are in the cycle, I think time will determine who the 1 is."
Ashlyn Harris and Alyssa Naeher are the frontrunners and the only goalkeepers in the pool that have won senior caps. But U.S. coach Jill Ellis and goalkeeper coach Graeme Abel are keenly watching a few younger goalkeepers who possess the tools to play the kind of soccer they're envisioning in the coming years.
“Right now, I think Ashlyn and Alyssa are challenging for that 1 spot, but 2019's a long way off ...,” Ellis told FourFourTwo ahead of the second SheBelieves Cup, which kicks off next week. “I'm OK not having a No. 1. I don't feel the need. Because of where we are in the cycle, I think time will determine who the 1 is. Time and experience. ...
“I think [we might have a first choice] at the end of the year, when I have a much better idea [after] letting them both go through the process. And I'm not guaranteeing -- they both know this -- that either one of them is the 1. Because we've got young keepers coming along, and what I need to find out is who is the best fit for what we're trying to do and who can deal with the pressure.”
Ellis wants to get Harris, 31, and Naeher, 28, as many minutes as possible. They have just 21 caps between them -- Solo won 202 -- and haven't played for the full team in meaningful competition. Jane Campbell, heading into her rookie season in the NWSL, joins them for games in March against England, France and Germany.
Ellis and Abel, an Englishman who has been with the national team for nearly two years, are burrowing even deeper. Abel has worked with the U-23, U-20 and U-17 keepers -- it's where he became familiar with Campbell and Abby Smith, who will get her first full U.S. camp this year -- and is spreading through youth soccer the philosophy that will govern American netminders going forward.
“A lot of it is driven by how we want to play,” Ellis said. “We want to be able to play out. Having goalkeepers with good feet, comfortable on the ball, is now essential to what we're trying to do. I think part of that is allowing goalkeepers opportunities to play in a real game, where the stress is on, where you have to perform. We have to see that. Because you can have a goalkeeper that can do fantastic in a lot of games, and then perhaps you put them in the pressure-cooker, they melt. And that's something that we want to make sure we truly vet as we continue to march towards 2019.”
Campbell and Smith have the kind of skills required for the job, but experience comes only with time. Harris and Naeher make more sense for the short-term. Abel says the focus is on both short- and long-term.
Who's in the conversation? Here are seven goalkeepers who will get an opportunity now or in the future:
ASHLYN HARRIS, Orlando Pride
11 caps/3 shutouts
Harris has been the goalkeeper of the future since her teens but, despite regular call-ups for camps this decade, has made fewer than a dozen international appearances, all in the past four years. At 31, she is the best technical goalkeeper in the pool, and her work away from the team -- whether studying other goalkeepers, only men, or picking up what she can from NHL goaltenders, or playing short-sided games with Orlando City SC players -- is legend. She's a first-class shot-stopper, a vocal leader, commands the space behind her backline, and has worked diligently to improve her feet.
ALYSSA NAEHER, Chicago Red Stars
10 caps/6 shutouts
Hope Solo's backup at the Rio 2016 Olympics (and, with Harris, at the 2015 Women's World Cup) has been a steady presence with the U.S. the past three years. She played in six games last year, the most in a calendar year in the past decade by a goalkeeper other than Solo, Nicole Barnhart, or Scurry. Naeher, 28, is extremely athletic, expert at stopping shots and dealing with aerial service, and her distribution, especially in transitional situations, is world-class.
ADRIANNA FRANCH, Portland Thorns FC
The former Oklahoma State All-American has been in and out of U.S. camps the last few years, and she was among the group Ellis brought together in January. Franch, 26, was a rookie for the Western New York Flash in 2013, missed the following year with an ACL tear, and returned to the NWSL last season after spending a campaign in Norway. She's a tremendous athlete but needs improvement with the ball at her feet.
JANE CAMPBELL, Houston Dash
The longtime youth national-teamer was only 17 the first time she was called into a full U.S. camp -- no goalkeeper has been younger -- but at 22 she's still awaiting her first cap. She was an All-American at Stanford University All-American before the Dash nabbed with her the 15th pick in this year’s NWSL Draft. Campbell represents the next step in the evolution of women's goalkeepers: superb technically, tactically astute, comfortable with the ball at her feet, expert organizer of her defense. She just needs time at the highest level.
USWNT Top 50
ABBY SMITH, Boston Breakers
The former University of Texas star, 23, might be the most athletic keeper in the U.S. pool. Smith, too, has scads of youth national team experience and next-stage tools. She's technically superior and terrific with her feet, absolute musts as the Yanks move forward. She'll be called in as soon as she is healthy from the knee injury that ended her rookie season with the Breakers after two games and prevented her from a call-up last summer.
CASEY MURPHY, Rutgers University
Heading into her redshirt junior season this fall, Murphy’s potential is off the charts, and her 6-foot frame has U.S. coaches excited, too. Murphy, 20, inconsistent at the U-20 World Cup but when she was on, she was lights out. She was in last month's full camp in Southern California and likely will spend this year with the U-23s.
THE DISTANT FUTURE
LAUREL IVORY, West Florida Flames
The No. 1 netminder for the U-17s is a high school junior headed to the University of Virginia in another 11 months. She has a long way to go but already is on the full team's radar.
Scott French is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench.