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ORLANDO, Fla. – Hope Solo is not here. Abby Wambach is not here. Megan Rapinoe is not here. Even Alex Morgan isn’t here.
Ashlyn Harris, to borrow from a Marshawn Lynch commercial, has been here the whole time.
The SheBelieves Cup begins March 1 and the tournament will feature a changing look for the world champion United States women’s national team. Wambach retired. Solo, the most decorated goalkeeper in American history, just completed a six-month suspension precipitated by her “cowards” comments about Sweden’s defensive tactics in a stunning Olympic quarterfinal loss. Rapinoe is still trying to regain her form from December 2015 knee surgery. Morgan, the most famous face in women’s soccer, has been in France with her new club Olympique Lyonnais and joined the national team this weekend.
What remains in this training camp is a goalkeeper competition and, more importantly, a need for new leaders to emerge. Harris might very well be the answer in both cases for a USWNT whose team culture has “changed and shifted.”
[ FC Yahoo: Solo remains a long way from USWNT comeback ]
“We carry each other here,” she told Yahoo Sports. “We go out of our way to make sure people are OK here. I make sure people are OK here. That’s putting my arm around certain people and not always just thinking about myself.”
Harris is a unique goalkeeper with a unique voice. On the field, she is aggressive – “not allowing forwards to breathe,” she says – and off the field, she is unafraid to share an opinion. After all, this is someone who once smacked a bully across the face with a catfish carcass.
But the softer side of Harris is quite clear. She has made her adult life about addressing mental health issues with candor and compassion, and her charisma could make the 31-year-old one of the most crucial forces in the evolution of Jill Ellis’s USWNT.
Especially if she wins Solo’s old job.
**********Harris doesn’t really want to talk about Solo, the exiled star. “I have no reaction to [Solo’s comments and the ensuing suspension],” she said. “To me that’s the past and I don’t even care to really talk about it.”
“We all make decisions and within those decisions we have consequences,” Harris added. “It’s completely out of my control. It’s sad to see someone who’s built a legacy and a career like that, [and have] all that happen.”
Asked if she has spoken to Solo since the Olympics, Harris shakes her head.
“Not at all.”
Harris, Solo’s backup on the national team for years, now has her chance to be the No. 1 goalkeeper if she edges out Alyssa Naeher. It’s a very close competition, and the SheBelieves Cup – a four-team tournament involving England, Germany, France and host USA – will likely give one or the other an advantage going into qualifying for the 2019 World Cup in France.
“It’s cool, it’s fun,” Harris said of the battle with Naeher. “We have a good relationship. It’s good competition. It’s been a privilege to have this type of environment but actually have a good training partner.”
However, it’s not like Harris has been doing nothing while waiting for this opportunity.
She was the 2016 Goalkeeper of the Year for the Orlando Pride in the National Women’s Soccer League, beating out Naeher (who won it in 2014) and becoming a fan favorite in a city with a new women’s pro team. The Pride, in its first season, stood for more than just soccer last June when the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, at the Pulse night club, devastated the area. Two days after the tragedy, both the Pride and Orlando City of Major League Soccer held a private dinner at a downtown restaurant and discussed how to honor the victims, their families and first responders.
“It was an emotional time,” Harris said. “It hits personally to me on a lot of different levels, especially being from the area.
“To be able to give the city a little bit more hope, a little bit more compassion and understanding and come together with all different beliefs, I think, was pretty incredible. That’s what we aim to do. The whole point of why we do what we do is to give people not only a performance but a place to feel safe.”
Harris has been doing that for years. She grew up not far from here, in Satellite Beach, and her childhood home was beset by addiction, divorce and depression. For Harris, part of the value of soccer was an escape from the constant stress she felt.
“I never talked about it as a kid,” Harris said. “I would act out and I could see other people in my family acting out. I was always taught to keep things private. I didn’t want to open up to people about what I was seeing and what I was going through.”
The national team helped her. Coaches found her a psychologist and gradually she turned destructive feelings into something more constructive.
“I had some unbelievable people who saw I was acting out and upset,” Harris said. “They pulled me aside and told me to sit down and talk to a psychologist. I’ve been raised in this program since I was 13. If I didn’t have that guidance from those coaches who are like, ‘We see a future in her and we need to make sure she’s OK …’ ”
Harris also discovered a non-profit organization called “To Write Love On Her Arms” dedicated to “presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide.” The group gets its name from the first person it helped – a teenager whose “great pain” caused her to cut the words “F— UP!” on her arm with a razor blade.
Harris has told her own story, and those who know it often write her letters seeking support or friendship. Also, after her matches, she is almost always the last player on the field, trying to give a hug to anyone in the stands who needs it or just say hello.
“I don’t think life is this Instagram fairytale everyone makes it out to be,” Harris said. “Life is super heavy. We all carry extreme heartache and demons. Instead of pretending like we don’t, I like to be honest and real … If [people] can’t be a voice, I’m here to understand that. If people can’t find it, I’ll help them find it. If they can’t talk about it in a group they can come up to me and talk about it.”
**********As Harris’ profile grows nationally and internationally, there’s a chance she can help even more people. And she will be the face of the Pride, at least in the short term with Morgan missing part of the NWSL season to play in France.
“Am I sad she’s missing half the season? Heck yeah, because we need her,” Harris says of Morgan. “I’m a competitor and I don’t like to lose. So does it suck for me? Yeah. Because I want her there. Am I happy for her personally? Yeah. Because this is something she wanted to check off her bucket list.”
Not much about the year to come will be easy for Harris. She’ll be part of a USWNT trying to put its 2016 Olympic failure behind it, and the Pride will be without its best player as it opens a new stadium. But the situation all fits with Harris’s worldview: Life is never easy – but it’s always rewarding.
“This is a very hard lifestyle,” she said. “Whoever says it’s not is super naïve. It’s very lonely, very isolating, cut-throat. You’re playing for the best team in the world [with the U.S.]. There’s really, really highs and really, really lows. There are injuries, being away from family; there’s so many elements of sacrifice and heartache. But in the end, it’s triumph.”
Her most notable triumphs could be in the very near future.