Hope Solo she's not, but Alyssa Naeher has USWNT on verge of World Cup repeat

Dan WetzelColumnist

LYON, France — Across 16 years and 202 caps, two Olympic golds and one World Cup title, Hope Solo was the goalkeeper for the United States women’s national team.

You couldn’t miss her.

There were big saves and big games and big drama and big controversies. Solo was a fearless, ferocious, oversized personality. At times she rubbed plenty of people the wrong way – including teammates, coaches and U.S. Soccer officials.

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She also, more often than not, came up with the impossible stop when the impossible stop was needed.

Solo is now a BBC soccer analyst, a role she is thriving in. Her replacement is Alyssa Naeher, whom teammates consider the anti-Solo (she’s described as an “introvert”) ... except when it’s time to make a save.

“Totally different people,” said teammate Christen Press, who’s been with the USWNT since 2014. “Different experience. Different relationships with the players on the team. Different personalities. Both confident but in very different ways and they show it in different ways. Both hugely talented but different strengths.”

Solo made the national team at 20, a prodigy whose talent was undeniable. Naeher didn’t make the team until 26, a slow build. She was Solo’s backup. At 31, this is her first major tournament as a starter.

She’s still proving that she can deliver on the game’s biggest stage. Up next: a semifinal clash here Tuesday (3 p.m. ET) against England.

Alyssa Naeher (left) does not share Hope Solo's personality. She wants, however, to share her status as the starting goalkeeper on a World Cup champion. (Getty)
Alyssa Naeher (left) does not share Hope Solo's personality. She wants, however, to share her status as the starting goalkeeper on a World Cup champion. (Getty)

Naeher hails from Connecticut, played at Penn State and exudes a quiet confidence. If she is to duplicate Solo’s accomplishments, she’ll do it in a calm manner.

“I just try to be me,” Naeher said. “What you see is what you get. My focus, my mentality is, how can I help this team win? How can I enjoy my time with teammates? How can I be the best teammate and player that I can be?”

It’s a welcome trait. Solo never hesitated to criticize coaching decisions, teammates or opponents. There were off-field issues. She was suspended from the team in 2016 for calling Sweden “cowards” for playing a defensive style. Before this tournament, in her role for BBC, she declared that coach Jill Ellis isn’t a good leader and “cracks under the pressure quite a bit.”

The Americans have tried to spend the tournament avoiding, or at least saying they are avoiding, Solo’s pointed critiques on the BBC – which is her job, mind you.

It’s clear though that this is a very tight and together team. Roles have been accepted. Egos have been put aside. The goal is victory and only victory.

“It’s cliche to say ... but we just have a group that wants to win,” forward Megan Rapinoe said.

That includes Naeher. Teammates say she is always willing to stay after practice for extra shots, she trains relentlessly and wants to lead by example when it comes to commitment. Thus far, it’s paid off.

“I think this being Alyssa’s first big tournament as the starting keeper, she’s shown great confidence and composure,” Press said. “[She] made big saves in the [France] game. Her distribution throughout the tournament has been fantastic and I think it’s been really cool to see her step into this moment.

“I think she shows her confidence in her willingness to put in the work in a humble way. Quietly.”

Alyssa Naeher has been successful as the first USWNT goalkeeper other than Hope Solo or Briana Scurry to start a World Cup match in over two decades. (Associated Press)
Alyssa Naeher has been successful as the first USWNT goalkeeper other than Hope Solo or Briana Scurry to start a World Cup match in over two decades. (Associated Press)

The last goalkeeper was not quiet. There were times people got tired of the noise, but you can hardly argue with the results. It’s a new day, and a new team, but Solo still casts a shadow. She’s part of the legacy of the position. Naeher is the first American other than Solo and the legendary Briana Scurry to start a World Cup game since 1995.

Is the U.S. better with a steady personality in net, or do they need fire? Press said not to underestimate Naeher, she brings plenty of impact on and off the field.

“People probably don’t think that as much, because she doesn’t have big media personality and she’s not front and center in the news and the team photos,” Press said. “But she has a huge energy about her, a determination. She also has some of the closest relationships and friendships of any player on the team because her slightly more introverted nature creates really close friendships.”

For Naeher, this is about getting the job done. She knows her celebrated predecessors in net. She watched them. She trained and competed with Solo. She studied and learned from both of them.

“Just the consistency with which they played for as long as they did was always impressive,” Naeher said. “Just being able to watch them and obviously training with Hope, to just see them go through tournaments … they were both the best at what they did for a very long time and I have a lot of respect for both of them.”

She isn’t a breakout personality on this team. She isn’t the big star. She doesn’t seem to care. She sounds extremely determined and confident, just in her own, thus far successful, way.

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