Three years ago, Briana Scurry caused a stir in the women’s soccer world by publicly questioning U.S. women’s team starting goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher on the eve of the World Cup.
Now, Scurry is happy to say those questions were answered how she hoped they would be: with a championship.
“If you’re in the goal, and you can win a major championship — World Cup, Olympics — you’ve got the nod in my book,” Scurry said. “Until you do that, I may have an emotional belief in you, but I don’t have an actual one, because I know at the end of the day, at some point — quarterfinal, semifinal, final — you’re going to be called upon to be an absolute unbreakable force.”
In the 2019 World Cup, Naeher saw off every comer. She excelled in dramatic knockout wins over Spain, host France, England, and the Netherlands, including a big penalty-kick save in the semifinal. Naeher also was strong at last year’s Olympics, with two group-stage shutouts and a penalty shootout win over the Netherlands before suffering a brutal knee injury in the semifinal.
“I have absolute confidence in Alyssa,” Scurry told The Inquirer in an interview ahead of this week’s release of her new memoir. “She’s done it — in very fine fashion I might add … She’s done a fantastic job, and I have absolutely no concern about that position.”
These days, Scurry’s concerns are about manager Vlatko Andonovski. How will he adjust without attacking phenom Catarina Macario, who’s out of this summer’s World Cup and Olympics qualifying tournament with a torn ACL?
Macario’s gifted playmaking and scoring skills allowed Andonovski to adjust the team’s style away from its tradition of pounding service in to a target striker. What happens to the tactics now?
“Obviously, he’s got some time,” Scurry said, a nod to Concacaf opponents being overmatched and the World Cup being a year away. “Hopefully, because she’s young, she might recover incredibly fast, and be better than she was before, which would be fabulous. But I hope he’s learned a lesson by maybe changing his strategy of building a team around one person.”
The charge that Andonovski was building everything around Macario isn’t entirely fair, because the U.S. depth chart is vast at every position. But there’s no doubt that Macario is a generational talent. She showed it with the national team in recent months, and she showed it with her club in helping Lyon win the French league and UEFA Champions League.
“This is the first time I’ve ever really had a question about who’s coaching them, and wondering how he’s going to handle the pressure,” Scurry said. “He’s had a go with the Olympics already and didn’t hit the mark. The mark is winning everything, mind you, a really high mark — it’s probably not fair, but it is what it is. And so he’s got to get it done this time.”
If the U.S. doesn’t win next year’s World Cup, it will be the first time that the Americans have finished below first in two straight tournaments since the 2000 Olympics and 2003 World Cup.
That is, as Scurry said, an outrageous streak. And as with Naeher three years ago, Scurry hopes Andonovski’s answers turn out right. But this is the pressure of having women’s soccer’s most famous coaching job.
Watching a phenom grow
Scurry is backing electric 20-year-old forward Trinity Rodman to be one of the answers.
This comes with an important disclaimer. Scurry has had an ownership stake in the Washington Spirit, Rodman’s NWSL club, and is close with current principal owner Michele Kang. Scurry has also been an assistant coach with the Spirit, and last year served as a mentor for Rodman during her rookie year as a pro.
So Scurry is not an impartial judge here. But she knows Rodman better than many other people do, inside or outside the sport.
“My number one job with regards to her last year was to help her be a better pro and get her feet wet and get her bearings,” Scurry said. “She had a direct line to me if she needed me for, you know, let’s have lunch or tea, or let’s talk.”
How often did that phone ring?
“Well,” Scurry said, “she didn’t need me.”
She said that Rodman, 20, and Spirit teammate Ashley Sanchez, 23, remind her of Tiffeny Milbrett and Shannon MacMillan, a pair of U.S. legends who played for years on the national team after being college teammates at the University of Portland.
“They instinctively know where each other are, and that’s not something that you can teach,” Scurry said. “They have that because they’re friends off the pitch.”
And they endured together as the Spirit were wracked with a series of abuse scandals incited by former manager Richie Burke and former owner Steve Baldwin. The Spirit overcame all that to win last year’s NWSL championship, with Rodman starring in the final.
“It’s been fantastic to see them rise above all the [expletive] that they had to deal with last year,” Scurry said of the young duo. “One of my great beliefs is if you go through the hell, you deserve the heaven on the other end of it. And they did.”
‘How to be exceptional’
Now the Spirit have a whopping seven of the 23 players on this summer’s U.S. squad: goalkeeper Aubrey Kingsbury, defenders Kelley O’Hara and Emily Sonnett, midfielders Sanchez and Andi Sullivan, and forwards Rodman and Ashley Hatch.
Rodman, Scurry said, “could be, and you can quote me, the most productive and dangerous player up top the national team has ever seen.”
Consider it quoted.
“She has the speed of [Alex] Morgan, the heading ability of Abby [Wambach], and the ability to make crafty runs like Mia [Hamm], all wrapped up into one person,” Scurry said of the daughter of NBA legend Dennis Rodman. “And the work rate that she got from her lineage, from her family.”
Now it’s up to Rodman’s teammates and coaches to manage her growth. On this point, Scurry and Andonovski agree that veterans Morgan and Megan Rapinoe will have a big role to play this summer. Scurry knew Andonovski spoke at length about that when Andonovski unveiled the roster, and was happy to hear it.
“Alex Morgan, it’s her job as a forward, and Rapinoe’s job, to tutor these young ones on how to be,” Scurry said. “To teach them how to be exceptional when exceptional is required.”
The time to teach is here, and the time to be exceptional isn’t far behind.