Alyssa Naeher headlines goalkeeper battle at first USWNT camp

(Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The United States women’s national soccer team is back in action for the first time in 2022, with 26 players descending on Austin, Texas for January camp under head coach Vlatko Andonovski.

Among those called into the year’s first training camp running from Jan. 19-28 is goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who returns to the USWNT for the first time since exiting the Tokyo Olympics early with a knee injury.

After rehabbing over the last six months, Naeher is back in net and ready to get to work. Below, we evaluate Naeher’s status and other takeaways from USWNT camp since it opened last week.

‘I feel great, 100 percent, no restrictions’

Naeher is one of three goalkeepers participating in the January camp, joining Washington’s Aubrey Kingsbury (née Bledsoe) and North Carolina’s Casey Murphy. The USWNT keeper competition will be one to watch, as no clear heir apparent to Naeher has yet to emerge.

Murphy made a case for her place in the lineup with a stellar performance in the USWNT’s November friendlies against Australia, recording a shutout in her first cap with the senior team.

“They bring a high level to the training sessions,” Naeher said of Kingsbury and Murphy during a media call Monday. “It’s a competitive environment. We are all going to keep pushing each other.”

Naeher has made 78 appearances for the USWNT and recorded 44 clean sheets during her international career, most notably giving up just two goals during the team’s run to the 2019 World Cup title. As the starter in France, Naeher played every minute of every game.

Since leaving the USWNT’s semifinal game against Canada with the injury, she has had a long road back to the pitch, taking up swimming during her months-long rehabilitation process.

“The gym I was at, there’s a group, they’re all triathletes or former college swimmers … they were giving me tips along the way, and it’s cool it turned into its own little community,” Naeher said. “It was something fun to look forward to. It’s never easy to grind through a recovery of an injury.”

Grateful to be on the other side of her rehab, Naeher said she’s embracing and enjoying even the routine aspects of training sessions. In net, the 33-year-old Red Stars keeper has no restrictions but is working back into peak soccer shape.

“Now it’s just getting back up to speed, now it’s just cleaning back up the technical pieces,” she said. “I’m excited to get back in with the group to put my head down and just get back to work.”

NWSL representation

Nine of 12 NWSL teams are represented on the USWNT’s January roster, including six players from the 2021 NWSL champion Washington Spirit: Kelley O’Hara, Emily Sonnett, Andi Sullivan, Ashley Sanchez, Rookie of the Year Trinity Rodman and Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch.

“Being here with six other Spirit players is fun. I was super excited when I saw the roster,” Hatch said. “It’s like a little mini-reunion before we go back to season.”

The NWSL-heavy roster highlights Andonovski’s emphasis on club form and his propensity to recruit from the league.

Morgan Gautrat is a player who has seemingly benefited from that trend, earning her first USWNT call-up since November 2020 after an impressive campaign with the NWSL finalist Red Stars in 2021. Chicago teammate Naeher said Gautrat, 28, fought to get back in the national team mix, calling the midfielder “the epitome of a team player.”

“I thought she had a phenomenal year with Chicago last year,” Naeher said. “It felt like she was back to probably the best I’ve seen her in a couple years, and she 100 percent earned and deserved the opportunity to come back in.”

With NWSL preseason set to begin Feb. 1 (unless the absence of a CBA leads to a players strike), many players view the camp as an opportunity to get into competition shape.

“I think anytime you can get touches on the ball, especially in an environment like this, it’s probably the most intense environment you can put yourself in,” O’Hara said. “It’s nice to be able to be here and be getting ready for 2022, and I think everybody here is going to go into preseason for NWSL probably looking pretty sharp.”

Following a six-week preseason training period, the NWSL will host the third annual Challenge Cup beginning March 19.

New players make a splash

The first USWNT camp of the year features a series of young players looking to make a strong first impression with Andonovski.

Thirteen players have ten USWNT caps or fewer, with Rodman, Kingsbury and San Diego’s Naomi Girma all still uncapped. While much of the roster is inexperienced on the international stage, many have competed at the club level, underscoring Andonovski’s ties to the NWSL.

“I feel like the newbies are maybe new to this environment, but they’re not new to the NWSL environment,” Hatch said. “And that’s also a competitive environment, so it may be new seeing them here, but it’s not new playing against them and with them.”

For those new to the USWNT, the 2022 kickoff camp provides them with an opportunity to compete and learn from seasoned leaders. O’Hara, who is the most capped player in camp with 148 international appearances, described the USWNT environment as all about “consistency and intensity and striving for excellence.”

“Be prepared be ready,” O’Hara said would be her advice to the new players. “You’re going to feel probably a little uncertain and feel like you’re out of your comfort zone.”

Two-time Mac Hermann trophy winner Jaelin Howell has welcomed the grind and competitive nature of camp.

“It’s awesome to be here and have this opportunity … [with] some of the other younger players getting our foot in the door and hopefully coming back more often and making a difference,” Howell said.

Following the January camp, Andonovski will name his 23-player roster for the SheBelieves Cup, which kicks off on Feb. 17 in Carson, Calif. and Frisco, Texas. The lineup he goes with will likely indicate the team’s direction heading into the 2022 Concacaf W Championship in July.

Clare Brennan is an associate editor at Just Women’s Sports.