The table for her was quiet. At the United States women’s national team’s pre-World Cup media day, third goalkeeper Adrianna Franch, who goes by “AD,” wasn’t a big draw. Only a handful of reporters surrounded the back-to-back National Women’s Soccer League goalkeeper of the year, whereas dozens would clamor around the team’s big stars. But they were rapt, drawn in by Franch’s eloquence and intensity as her freshly cut Mohawk bobbed up and down with her gestures.
Still, she almost certainly won’t play in France. Backup goalkeepers seldom get on the field in what is, at most, a seven-game tournament. Third goalkeepers have no hope at all. The odds are prohibitive.
Which casts Franch in a strange role. One that doesn’t even exist at the Olympics, where teams are allowed to roster just two goalkeepers, rather than three. Yet the 28-year-old Portland Thorns player will be there, at every practice and every game, at every meal and every meeting, very much a part of the team looking to defend its World Cup title but also kind of on the outside.
Alyssa Naeher is the undisputed starter. Franch says nobody has ever said whether she’s the second goalkeeper or the third. But Ashlyn Harris has 21 national team appearances to her name. Franch has just one, which didn’t come until March 2 of this year, in a 2-2 tie with England in the SheBelieves Cup – when she made a mistake that cost her team a goal. Harris, then, is the logical alternative to Naeher, should she get injured or suffer a disastrous collapse in form.
So what is Franch going for?
The goalkeeping hierarchy is not uncontroversial.
When Hope Solo was unceremoniously kicked off the national team after the 2016 Olympic debacle and almost a decade as the undisputed starter, a bit of a goalkeeping crisis ensued. Little attention had been paid to Solo’s succession, such was her transcendence and age when the federation finally grew fed up with her antics. Harris and Naeher were allowed to fight it out for the job. Franch wasn’t yet established in the NWSL. But by the end of 2017, she was the league’s goalkeeper of the year and she won that prize again in 2018. Both years, she beat out Naeher and Harris. Yet she never got a real chance with the national team.
She’d first been called up in 2012, back when she played at Oklahoma State University, and she represented the under-20 and under-23 national teams. But it would be seven years from her first call-up to actually getting on the field.
“We brought her in a long, long time ago and she wasn’t ready,” head coach Jill Ellis says. “But when I brought her in [again] I could see a growth in her. The success she had with the Portland Thorns, that gave her a confidence when she came back into the national team environment. You could see a slightly different mindset in terms of her comfort level being around elite players.”
Franch, for her part, doesn’t worry about whether or not she got a fair shake anymore. “It’s not really something I have control of, so I try not to think on that too much,” she says. “Though there were times when I did and was frustrated about it and read too much into it, rather than focusing on my career on letting that do the talking. When the team is doing well and the goalkeeper is consistent, the coach isn’t going to make a change and that’s understandable. You only control what you can control, and that’s me and what I do on a daily basis.”
Besides, she figures there’s no room for rancor in a World Cup campaign. “In the space that we’re in right now, me, personally, I’m the team,” she says. “And the goalkeeper unit, we don’t have time for that kind of thinking. We’re here to win the World Cup. And if an individual starts thinking along those lines, they start pulling away from the team. And I think it’s really important not to be thinking about that. If you’re stuck in that mindset, when you are called upon, it’ll be hard to get out of that and make sure you are ready. That’s a distraction from being ready and giving to the team and what they need.”
So how do you give the team what it needs as a third goalkeeper?
“Train as if you’re going to play, but also be supportive to the player who is going to play and make sure that they have everything that they need and are prepared to step in goal,” says Franch.
It’s a tricky equation between pushing the starter to be at her best by training hard and creating competition, but also providing fellowship. It’s getting yourself ready, but also preparing somebody who will play instead of you. You’re enabling your competitor and set all of that aside at the same time. Just in case you actually play.
“You always have to be ready,” Franch says. “You have to train like you’re the number one. You have to always expect that you will play. You have to recover like you’re going to be playing. You have to train like you’re going to be playing. And that’s a hard balance. It takes a mental toughness. I go in with a mindset that there can be any moment I can play.”
What makes that harder still is that the starter tends to get more repetitions in practice. And the backups spend a lot of their time helping the starter to work on whatever drills she needs, taking shots or returning long kicks.
Franch is committed to being a helpful team member and has won the appreciation of her fellow netminders. “AD brings a lot of experience,” Naeher says. “She brings a lot of good energy to training. She pushes the rest of us. She’s a great teammate.”
“We have a great goalkeeper union,” Harris echoes. “And we have a such a great culture that we’ve created that’s taken a long time. We’re extremely supportive and we push each other.”
Ellis appreciates having a third goalkeeper who maintains an intensity in spite of her long odds. “It’s the attitude in training,” she says of Franch. “It’s the understanding of the role. It’s the desire to continue to push – because you don’t want someone to just come in and be happy to be there. I saw all of that in her. And she’s a good person in the locker room. When you bring a player that has the potential to not play, you want to make sure they’re serving the collective well with a positive attitude. She brings all that.”
Growing up, Franch was inevitably compared to longtime national team star goalkeeper Briana Scurry, who is also African-American and remains a personal hero of hers. Franch happened to play her only U.S. game the day each player got to put an inspirational woman’s name on her back, en lieu of her own. Franch picked Scurry.
In a disproportionately white sport, black goalkeepers are rare at the elite level. Franch is one of just five non-white players on the 23-player World Cup roster, and the only goalkeeper. And in that way, she brings value to the team as well, she believes, even if it’s from the far end of the bench.
“It’s so important for kids to have role models who look like them, relate to them, speak to them in a certain way,” she says. “I don’t think I realized as a kid that there’s someone who looks like me in a position I want to be in.” But Scurry was nonetheless there, implanting the message in Franch’s young mind that black women could be national team goalkeepers too, even though she didn’t realize it fully.
“It’s definitely a continuous thought how I represent myself now and what and who I represent, who I want and hope to inspire,” Franch says. “There’s a little bit of a responsibility there to carry yourself in the way you want to carry yourself. Someone who looks like you might be looking up to you, whether they know it or not.”
But just being there, no matter how much good she can do as a helpful teammate or a role model, will never be enough to Franch. She has bigger ambitions. “It’s to play,” she says. “To be the goalkeeper that helps keep us in games. That’s the job of a goalkeeper.”
Even the third goalkeeper.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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