The highlight moment of last week’s reunion of former U.S. women’s soccer stars came when Briana Scurry was asked her opinion of the national team’s current players.
“There’s one difference this World Cup team has, the USA, that no other team previously has had, and that’s a question mark at the goalkeeper position,” Scurry said, and the packed event room in Manhattan suddenly went still.
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Did Briana Scurry really just say that? Did the star goalkeeper of the 1999 World Cup winning-team really just …
“Oh, yes, she did,” Brandi Chastain said from the next chair over.
"She went there," Heather O'Reilly added.
And in a subsequent interview with The Inquirer, Scurry went there again.
"It's a question mark, and I'm just being honest about it," she said. "People who don't realize that may not be understanding the way in which championships are won. At some point in time, the goalkeeper — for whatever team has ever won a championship — has really had to carry it on her shoulders at some point. So the question is, can they do it?"
Scurry, now 47, immediately answered her own question: “I think we definitely can.”
But the die was cast simply by asking, and Scurry knew it.
"We just don't know yet," she added. "In the past, when you look at strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. team, goalkeeping has always been in the strength column, and right now it's in the question column."
Scurry is not the only person asking. None of the current U.S. goalkeepers has significant experience at a major tournament. Hope Solo played every minute of the last five of them: the 2015 and 2011 World Cups and the 2016, 2012 and 2008 Olympics.
When Solo was cast off after the 2016 Olympics, coach Jill Ellis finally gave other players substantive playing time. Alyssa Naeher won the starting job. She’s likely to be in net when the U.S. hosts fellow World Cup contender Australia on Thursday in suburban Denver (9 p.m., Fox Sports 1).
But for all the high-profile friendlies the U.S. has played in the last three years, there’s nothing like a World Cup.
“I think Alyssa Naeher has — athletically speaking, and with her skills and her ability to have the ball at her feet — all the tangible elements of a fantastic goalkeeper,” Scurry said. “But there’s always that little bit, that couple of percentage points, and that’s mental. And you don’t even realize if somebody has that until you forge them in the fire. So we just don’t know.”
And so she wonders.
“I haven’t necessarily seen it, whether she does or doesn’t have it. But because I haven’t seen it yet, it makes me think and wonder: Is it going to sprout out of her in the time when her back is against the wall?” Scurry said. “And the team’s back will be against the wall at some point. You just can’t win a world championship by outscoring everyone. At some point in time, she’s going to be one-on-one with some of the best in the world, and we don’t know what’s going to happen. At least, I don’t.”
Critics and backers alike say Ellis put herself in this situation. The backers would note that when you have the best goalkeeper in the world in Solo — despite many off-the-field issues that could have seen her dismissed — she plays.
Scurry also had a long tenure as a starter (and a sterling reputation): She played every game of the 2003 and 1999 World Cups and the 2004 and 1996 Olympics.
In fact, Solo and Scurry combined to play every minute of every major tournament game in the last 27 years except seven: all five at the 2000 Olympics, when April Heinrichs gave Siri Mullinix the starting job; and two at the 1995 World Cup, when Scurry got a red card in the 88th minute of the second group stage game. Mia Hamm, of all people, played the few minutes after Scurry got sent off, and Saskia Webber played the group stage finale.
In short, Scurry gets what Ellis did. But that doesn’t mean she likes it.
“My tenure was very, very long; Hope’s tenure was very, very long; and that’s just the way we go about doing it,” Scurry said. “I think whoever [Ellis] chooses, whether it’s Alyssa or Ashlyn [Harris, the No. 2] or AD [Franch, the No. 3], I think they’re going to do incredibly well. In the first round, for sure, no problem. But it’s going to be a real test come the quarterfinals.”
That word choice was no coincidence. If the U.S. and France win their groups, the defending champions would face the tournament hosts in Paris. The U.S. hasn’t won in three meetings — two losses and a tie — and France scored seven goals combined in those games. Naeher was in net for all of them.