Next up for U.S. after Hope Solo, Alyssa Naeher focuses on NWSL playoffs

PISCATAWAY, N.J. – The Chicago Red Stars had just earned a huge three points over Sky Blue FC on Saturday night, winning 3-1 thanks to goals from Stephanie McCaffrey, Christen Press and Sofia Huerta. Goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher had been minutes away from earning a shutout her first game back in the NWSL after the Olympic break, but fellow Olympian Sam Kerr scored a consolation goal for Sky Blue in the 94th minute. Still, the victory meant that the Red Stars would end the weekend sitting third on the table, only one point behind Portland Thorns FC and still pushing for a home playoff match next month.

These particular ninety minutes of soccer played on Saturday night were crucial for each side–Chicago finding a big momentum swing, Sky Blue losing significant ground to sneak into the fourth playoff spot. But even still, the ongoing and evolving situation concerning Hope Solo’s national team contract termination felt like an additional presence at the match. Not overshadowing the result, but impossible to ignore.

There’s no guarantee that the fans at Yurcak Field watched as the new number one goalkeeper for the United States took the field for the first time after the Olympics, but it’s a likely bet. U.S. head coach Jill Ellis selected Alyssa Naeher to make the 18 for Rio, though she said both before and after the roster announcement that it was very close between them.

Naeher, calm and measured as always, couldn’t offer much up on the national team front. There’s no surprise that there wasn’t much to her postgame comments–she’s in a tough, unenviable position. Her ascension to the starting XI, if it does indeed happen during the upcoming friendlies in September, will be under intense scrutiny.

“I can’t really comment on her comments. Those are her comments, her thoughts. I don’t really have much to say. I don’t know what was behind the decision that was made–U.S. Soccer made that decision. It’s obviously an unfortunate situation to be in,” Naeher said on Saturday night, music still blaring at Yurcak Field. “But honestly, my focus is here and finishing the rest of the season. We’ve got three important games before we head back into [USWNT] camp. That’s my focus right now, to finish out this season strong.”

Belo Horizonte, Brazil - August 1, 2016: The USWNT trains in preparation for their opening group game at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
Belo Horizonte, Brazil – August 1, 2016: The USWNT trains in preparation for their opening group game at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. (ISI photo)

Naeher confirmed that the players on the team found out about Solo’s termination at the same time as the media and public. While she obviously wasn’t involved in all at the decision, Naeher also said she’s still in the dark on most of the details. “I have no idea what was said behind closed doors, different conversations that were had.

“You know, my job is–” Here Naeher was interrupted by the entirety of the PDA youth soccer group screaming at the arrival of Sky Blue FC players coming back onto the pitch for a giant group photo, lending an air of absurdity to the moment. “My job as a player is to go out and perform, and give 100% for my team, in whatever capacity that is. All I can control is going out, pushing myself, pushing my teammates, and trying to give 100% on the field.”

Questioned if she had given any thought to what her new standing would be with the national team, Naeher brushed aside that question entirely. “These three games are huge, obviously we’re in the middle of a playoff run. Here in the NWSL, that’s my focus right now. Then when we get back into camp and have those games, we’ll focus on that a little bit more.”

There have been questions for what comes next after Solo, for much longer than the pressing concerns of the past week now that the team’s hand has been forced. On July 9, Hope Solo earned her 100th shutout, and through the time of her contract termination, had 202 appearances for the national team. Naeher has seven caps since 2014. Total. Three of those have come in 2016. (Harris has eight since 2013.)

Despite the lack of minutes, Alyssa Naeher is more than ready to be the starting goalkeeper for the United States national team.

Chester, PA - April 10, 2016: The USWNT defeated Colombia 3-0 during their friendly at Talen Energy Stadium.
Chester, PA – April 10, 2016: The USWNT defeated Colombia 3-0 during their friendly at Talen Energy Stadium. (ISI photo)

Naeher’s NWSL resumé, while not the heights of top-caliber international soccer, is nothing to sneeze at. She’s earned 55 NWSL appearances, 45 with the Boston Breakers, and 10 with the Chicago Red Stars. She picked up some hardware along the way as well, winning the 2014 NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year award.

So now Naeher’s time with Chicago Red Stars might have more weight to it than ever before–more than just trying to edge into the primary back-up goalkeeper spot in a tight race. The team’s win in Piscataway had multiple levels of significance. In the long run, the fact that Naeher didn’t manage the shutout won’t matter–three points are three points, one tick less on the stats sheet.

Still, Naeher felt that goal from Sam Kerr. After allowing it, she sat in the mouth of the goal for a moment, holding the ball before someone from Sky Blue came trotting up to claim it back for a quick restart. Naeher laughed about that reaction after the game, and said, “I think you always go into a game, especially as a defense, wanting the clean sheet.”

As much as a late goal stung, “At this point in the season, this was a huge game for us to come on the road–you know, we’re three points ahead of Sky Blue, holding that fourth spot, so it’s a six-point swing for us. We knew that coming into it was going to be a big one and we really wanted to come down here, get a solid performance.”

Just like with the last season, Naeher has had to balance a major tournament with the USWNT along with NWSL club responsibilities, which also meant mentally balancing the two ultimate goals of a gold medal and a NWSL Championship. “Everything was kind of compartmentalized,” Naeher said, “we had the pre-Olympic stuff, we wanted to help get the points we needed to put ourselves in a good spot going in. Then we switched focus, now we’re in Olympic-mode. Olympics are done, now it’s the push for the playoffs.

“We’re back to that original goal of getting ourselves in the playoffs and hopefully putting ourselves in a good spot for a Championship.”

With plenty of attention on the transition from the quarterfinal loss at the Olympics to the rest of the NWSL season, there were benefits to actually getting a small break before returning to the field. “We all took a week, went home and decompressed a little bit and that was good. Got a lot of family time, which was good physically and mentally. That way we were able to come back in this week, fresh and ready to go, and get a good week of training in with the team and really get incorporated back in.”

For Naeher, it was more than just her own reintegration into the squad, she also was pleased with the full U.S. national team contingent’s return. “I’m happy for Christen [Press] to come back and get a goal right away. I thought she played well with the other players, a seamless fit back in. Same thing with Julie [Johnston] in the back line. A seamless transition back in there.”

But for Naeher, there was a clear takeaway for the evening, questions about Solo, the national team picture and her own role in it aside: “I think this is a big statement from us, to come into a difficult place to play and get three points. Looking forward, if we do have to go on the road in the playoffs, to Washington or Portland, this will give us confidence knowing that we can go to a tough road game and be confident we can still get the job done.”

Alyssa Naeher and the Chicago Red Stars continue their quest on September 4, hosting a resurgent Seattle Reign FC looking to advance out of fifth place at Toyota Park.

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