The questions came at Alyssa Naeher all at once.
“This is your first major tournament,” the inquiry started, sailing toward the U.S. women’s soccer team’s starting goalkeeper like free kicks do from 25 yards out. “People have pointed to that. It’s not like you’re a rookie, but that’s been the narrative. What do you make of that? Do you think it’s overwhelming? The lack of tournament experience, does it matter?"
Naeher made the stop.
“I can’t control what other people say, what other people perceive," the 31-year-old Penn State product said, with barely a hint of emotion in her voice. “I know who I am, I know what I bring to the team, I’m confident in the player that I am. The only thing that I can control is showing up to every practice, every game, and trying to be at my best at any given moment.”
If only the subject were actually that simple. It isn’t. In fact, it’s one of the biggest questions the Americans face heading into the World Cup.
Naeher, of the NWSL’s Chicago Red Stars, has been the United States’ starting goalkeeper since the 2016 Olympics ended. But she has never played in an Olympics or a World Cup. Either Briana Scurry or Hope Solo took up every minute of every major tournament from the 2003 World Cup through the end of Solo’s tenure three years ago.
The change in net is made even more stark by Solo’s track record of spectacular saves in big games. Naeher has the skill set but has never made a Solo-esque stop in the brightest spotlight — in part because she’s never had the chance to.
Fox Sports lead analyst Aly Wagner, a former teammate of Scurry’s and Solo’s, backs Naeher to succeed. But as with many other observers, she has doubts.
“Alyssa Naeher, as of late, is having a lot of moments when she has to come up big — and she has come up big in some of them, and some of them are just unstoppable," Wagner said. “The level of pressure and the situations that she has been put in … I’d be willing to bet she’s under twice or three times the amount of pressure either of those [past] goalkeepers were under.”
Then came the caveats.
“There’s always going to be a first major tournament for goalkeepers," Wagner said. "[Naeher] hasn’t been flawless, and that’s why there’s concern around what kinds of performances she can put forth in the World Cup. So there’s a ton of pressure on Naeher.”
Among the factors in that pressure is that Naeher doesn’t have Solo’s forceful personality. She isn’t going to seize the limelight like Solo did time and again.
Naeher also isn’t going to be thrust into the limelight like Solo was whenever her personal life made headlines. She is much more private. The statements that matter to her are the ones she makes on the field: by word when organizing the American back line, and by deed when the ball comes her way.
While Naeher has never played in a major tournament, she has been to a few. She was on the bench at the 2015 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, and started on the 2008 under-20 World Cup-winning team with Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux, and Meghan Klingenberg. Naeher conceded just once in six games, an inconsequential goal in the 92nd minute of the final.
U.S. coach Jill Ellis placed her trust in Naeher soon after the 2016 Olympics and has kept it ever since.
“Alyssa has done exceptionally well for us,” Ellis said. “She is solid back there, good with her feet. … We’re really working hard to play out of the back a lot, and I think she handles the ball exceptionally well for us.”
Naeher heads into the World Cup with a streak of four straight shutouts, and the confidence that comes from that. But until she takes the field in France, the questions looming over her will remain unanswered.