Analysis

Will the best American goalkeeper of 2017 play for the USWNT?

Jeremy Reper-ISIphotos.com

Jill Ellis says club performance earns you a chance with your country. Will she honor those words with Adrianna Franch?

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The best goalkeeper of the 2017 National Women’s Soccer League season is back in the picture for the United States women’s national team. That’s how it should work, right?

In theory, of course. But there is no guarantee of that being the case, and U.S. head coach Jill Ellis’ recent comments that she has settled on the core of players from which she’ll plan her 2019 World Cup title defense leaves grim prospects for those outside the picture.

“Is there someone still out there? Is this a set group? I like the core of this group,” Ellis said. “I think that’s the best way to answer that. And I like the possibilities of this group. So, yeah, I think I’ve got a really good sense of our core group moving forward.”

Those comments came in October, just after the conclusion of the NWSL season and in a camp which featured the usual crowd – but not Adrianna Franch.

Franch had just helped guide the Portland Thorns to their second NWSL championship in the league’s five-year history, winning goalkeeper of the year as she molded her game into a more complete and consistent version of its younger self.

She is the American goalkeeper with the best year-long body of work, and now the question is whether that can translate on the big stage. She certainly has her backers.

“If she continues like how she did this year, she’s absolutely one of my favorites for the national team,” says Nadine Angerer, Thorns goalkeeper coach and 2013 FIFA World Player of the Year. “I’m not saying this because I’m her goalkeeper coach. If you have trust in her, if you work with her, if you know how she is as a person, she is in my eyes – and I mean it seriously – she could be one of the world’s best goalkeepers.”

To be that, Franch must prove herself on the international stage, yet despite coming through the U.S. youth program, she remains uncapped.

The current landscape

Alyssa Naeher is the United States’ de facto No. 1 in what might be dubbed an openly closed two-goalkeeper race, with Ashlyn Harris still confined to the No. 2 spot. Jane Campbell appears to have assumed the role of The Next Great American ‘Keeper, based on recent call-ups and her history in the U.S. youth national team system.

None of the incumbents, however, have been convincing. Naeher is the most consistent – recent major blunder against Brazil in August aside – but her communication has at times been criticized, and she lacks the sort of standout athleticism which the U.S. has come to expect from its netminder. It doesn’t appear as though she has locked down the No. 1 spot despite playing the majority of minutes in net this year for the United States.

Harris’ game is built on spectacular shot-stopping ability – it just hasn’t been consistent, nor really given enough game minutes in a U.S. uniform to know how it translates against the world’s best teams. Campbell profiles like a younger version of Harris, but more erratic (she has come a long way since a five-goal howler to kick off her professional career in 2017).

If all that sounds harsh on them, it might be. But it’s symptomatic of the shadow left by their predecessor. Any American woman stepping between the pipes will be compared to Hope Solo, who was one of the two best goalkeepers in the world for the better part of a decade. Angerer was the other, and she has had her say on Franch’s ceiling.

That shadow will still loom at the 2019 World Cup, which will in all likelihood be the first major tournament to not feature Solo in goal since the 2004 Olympics. An abrupt end to the Solo era brought a larger microscope to the goalkeeper position, long considered a strength of the American talent pipeline.

NEXT: The evolution that took Franch to NWSL's summit