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Alyssa Naeher discusses five years of ‘absolute heartbreak’ before USWNT breakthrough

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Alyssa Naeher’s rise to USWNT starting goalkeeper didn’t happen overnight. Training in Hope Solo’s shadow for years, Naeher was finally named the team’s starter in net in April 2019.

On the most recent episode of the Just Women’s Sports podcast, Naeher tells USWNT teammate Kelley O’Hara that 2014 served as a turning point in her career.

“I remember Paul [Rogers] calling me,” Naeher says, “and he’s like, ‘Yeah, somebody got hurt. Can you come in and be a training goalkeeper? You won’t be on the roster for anything, but can you be a training goalkeeper?’”

Naeher accepted the national team invitation and was awarded her first contract with the USWNT after the camp. She made her debut with the team in December of 2014 against Argentina.

Just getting the chance to take the pitch with the U.S. was a long process for Naeher due to a limited number of goalkeeping spots.

“I think it’s definitely very challenging to go through,” she says. “I think I went into my first camp in 2009 and didn’t get my first cap till 2014. I don’t even think I got to dress for a game until 2013.”

After four years in the USWNT system, Naeher began getting impatient. In a conversation at one team camp, Naeher remembers asking, “At what point do you stop being grateful to be here to then you transition to like,’OK, now I’m pissed that I’m not getting a chance.'”

Eventually, Naeher began to shift her attention to “small victories.”

“I realized early on that the only thing that I could control was my attitude as a training partner, as a teammate, as a player. Take the feedback that I’m given, try to go make changes,” she says.

Naeher started to offer herself up to help with anything the team needed, from grabbing coffees to filling in at center back. “I realized that I had truly gained the respect of my teammates and my coaches for just putting my head down and going to work every day and being a good teammate and trying to make the team better in whatever way that I could,” she says.

Still, making sure she was ready for whenever her time came wasn’t easy. “I have so many more stories of absolute heartbreak along the way that we just don’t have time for,” Naeher says.

One moment that stands out to Naeher is the time she threw her back out before a pair of games against England and France in 2015. Ashlyn Harris, who had also been waiting for her shot, got the start in net.

“Ashlyn gets to play and Ashlyn balled out. Played incredible against France and then played incredible against England,” Naeher recalls. “Ashlyn and I, we’ve always had like such a good relationship, and we’ve been on this together for the last what, 10, 12 years?”

Hope Solo left the team after the 2016 Olympics following a historic career, opening up the starting goalkeeper position. Naeher remembers being “cautiously optimistic” during that period that she could be tapped to fill Solo’s shoes.

It took until former head coach Jill Ellis named Naeher the starter in April 2019. Since then, she has been the team’s indisputable goalkeeper, proving herself during the USWNT’s run to the 2019 World Cup title and a bronze medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Listen to O’Hara and Naeher talk about their journey with the USWNT in the full conversation on the Just Women’s Sports podcast.