REIMS, France — When U.S. women’s national team players took questions from the media on Sunday, it quickly became clear the most topical figure was someone not even on it.
Have the players seen Hope Solo’s comments criticizing coach Jill Ellis as a poor leader who cracks under pressure, a reporter asked?
“I haven’t been on social media since we left New York, so I’m not really sure what’s going on,” said goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, shrugging.
“Same,” said midfielder Julie Ertz. “They’ve basically created a bubble for us.”
Does it annoy them that Naeher can’t escape questions about Solo’s legacy and filling her shoes, another journalist asked?
“Yeah,” Ertz said, matter-of-factly. “No one’s just given her time yet. We know who she is. We train with her every single day. We know how good she is.”
At another table a few feet from Ertz, Naeher was being asked about – you guessed it – Solo.
“Obviously she has an incredible legacy,” Naeher said. “She was a great player for this team and she was a great goalkeeper. She represented this team for a very long time at a high level and she was one of the best goalkeepers in the world for a long time. I have a lot of respect for the career that she had.”
With the Americans set to kick off their World Cup on Tuesday against Thailand and looking like locks to cruise through the group stage, the drama and intrigue surrounding the team has had to come from somewhere else. Solo, thanks to her off-field bluntness and on-field success, offers plenty of storylines.
While Solo’s comments about Ellis on BBC’s World Cup podcast Friday spread like wildfire, it’s not as if Solo has been out of everyone’s minds.
There’s a reason for that. As Yahoo Sports pointed out last month, Solo was a superior shot-stopper, saving a higher percentage of shots than Naeher has and stacking more clean sheets along the way. Briana Scurry, the goalkeeping legend before Solo, hasn’t been quiet either, expressing concern about whether Naeher has the mental toughness that she and Solo had.
But whenever asked, Naeher’s teammates have been quick to defend the team’s new starting goalkeeper against the comparisons that mostly feel like criticisms.
According to fellow goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, the players tune it out now.
“There are a lot of great goalkeepers in the past who have pioneered the position, but we’re about moving forward and we’re about what’s going on now,” Harris told reporters last month. “We’re in a good place. We have very good goalkeepers. Everyone will always have something to say, and that’s OK. We’re used to it.”
Added Ertz on Sunday: “[Naeher’s] really good — great with her feet, great shot-stopper. She knows what she’s good at. She’s been fantastic in training and I see how much she has put into it and how prepared she is. That gives us confidence knowing how ready she is."
These days, when the traveling press corps asks a question about an outside factor – and Solo is very much on the outside since being kicked off the team in 2016 – the players talk about their “bubble.” That’s exactly what they did in 2015 when asked relentlessly about the USWNT’s poor form in the early rounds of the tournament.
Naeher says it’s not about the team being unable to handle the criticism, but making sure the team is as close and cohesive as possible throughout the tournament.
“The best way to come together as a group is to kind of create that bubble, eliminate all the outside noise,” Naeher said. “We have all those expectations for ourselves. We don’t need any outside things. We have high standards. We want to win.
“The more that we can bond and come together as a group, you’ll be able to see that on the field. I think all that translates into performances. You can see the teams that are cohesive and you can see the teams that aren’t, and we want to be one of those cohesive teams.”
Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.
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