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Alyssa Naeher brings leadership to USWNT defense without their captain

Alyssa Naeher will be a key veteran leader on the USWNT backline that is now without Becky Sauerbrunn. (Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

For the entirety of the U.S. women’s national team’s World Cup-winning campaign in France in 2019, Alyssa Naeher had very little trouble staying locked in.

“I don’t even think I turned my phone off airplane mode,” she said before Red Stars training on Thursday, the day after being named to her third-straight World Cup squad.

Naeher is going to need a similar amount of focus this year. She was a part of the USWNT’s last two World Cup-winning teams, first as a backup in 2015 and then as the team’s starter in 2019. This year, she’s bringing a crucial veteran presence to a backline that will be missing captain Becky Sauerbrunn for the first time since 2007.

“I’m very disappointed for Becky, obviously,” Naeher said. “I have the greatest amount of respect in the world for Becky, who she is as a person and who she is as a player, so she will definitely be missed.”

“Becky is — she’s our captain, she’s our leader, and she is going to be a big hole to fill. And I think just her presence in the team, in meetings, on the field in games, her leadership and her experience, you don’t just replace it.”

Naeher believes that raising the level of the defense in Sauerbrunn’s absence will be a group effort, with every player bringing just a little bit more of themselves and their individual strengths to each game. As for the 35-year-old goalkeeper, she prides herself on taking things one day at a time.

“I just try to stay as present as possible,” she said. “Each day is a new day to try to learn from the day before and build off of that — learn from the things I’ve not done as well and figure out the things I have done well and try to build off of that.”

She’s known to U.S. and Chicago fans as “Uncle Naeher,” a nickname given to her by former Red Stars teammate Stephanie McCaffrey for the way she’d help her teammates out with tasks you might delegate to a family member. But Naeher feels that stepping into her own leadership role has taken time. She’s serving as the Red Stars captain after the departure of Vanessa DiBernardo in the offseason. That means she’s been responsible for stewarding a young team through a difficult season and an impending sale, after scandal rocked the organization in recent years.

“I wish that I could say I did everything perfectly and everything right, but that’s just not true,” Naeher said of facing obstacles with Chicago. “But I’d say for me, it’s just about learning, it’s about growth, and when I have made mistakes along the way or mishandled situations, I’ve always tried to learn how to be better from them. And I feel like I’ve done that.”

Naeher’s dynamic within the USWNT is slightly different, as the national team has a variety of experienced players and big personalities able to take on the mantle of leadership. The U.S. will still be traveling with two-time World Champions like Kelley O’Hara, Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, and Naeher says that “each person is a leader in their own way.” Naeher isn’t known as a player who is going to be the loudest in the team huddle, but she relies on her work ethic to shine through.

“I’ve always just tried to be me, just tried to be who I am, stay true to who I am, and however I can help this team to be successful,” she said. “To me, half of leadership is just showing up and putting in the work and fighting for the person next to you, and that’s something where I do feel very comfortable saying that is what I do consistently.”

That mindset can make the difference between a call-up and international disappointment, especially as players work through whatever challenges their clubs might be facing to show off for the national team coaching staff. The goalkeeper is the only representative of the Red Stars making the trip with the U.S. this year, after teammates Tierna Davidson and Casey Krueger just missed the cut. As a player who sometimes found herself on the outside looking in in the past, Naeher has learned to simply focus on what she can control.

“I think I learned early on in my career, through a lot of different frustrations and struggles and disappointments, that the one thing, the only thing that I had control over my entire career was my work ethic every single day in training, and my preparation,” she said.

“I could never control how other goalkeepers are doing, I couldn’t control the decisions that were being made by my coaches and their opinions. But the one thing that I had control over is — can I be a good teammate and show up and give everything I have every single day? So that’s what I chose to do.

“And something that I’m proud of is that I think that’s still there now, 15 years later. I think that that’s all I have, and that’s what I hope to instill in other people going forward. And at the end of the day, that’s all you can take with you.”

Naeher celebrates with Becky Sauerbrunn after a win over England in the 2019 World Cup semifinal. (Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)

Naeher’s not planning on guiding the new USWNT backline with a particularly heavy hand. The time they spend together in camp will help them figure out each teammate’s individual needs, including her fellow goalkeepers, Casey Murphy and Aubrey Kingsbury.

“It’s going to be about connecting with all of them and understanding,” she said. “Does this person need a little pep talk before? Do they need to be left alone? Do they want my unsolicited advice? Do I need to wait for them to ask for it?”

Naeher still remembers just observing the goalkeeping giants in front of her in 2015, and taking in processes that she hopes to pass along to players going through a major tournament for the first time. True to form, with another tall task in front of her, Naeher isn’t focused on her own legacy, though her longevity and success with the U.S. speaks for itself. She’s focused more on living up to the honor of wearing the U.S. No. 1 jersey.

“My responsibility is to continue to train hard every single day, continue to set a high standard,” she said, “and show this next generation of goalkeepers what it takes to be on the national team, and what it takes to — every single day, commitment to training, their commitment to preparation — to uphold the standards that numerous goalkeepers have set before us.”

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.