Alyssa Naeher remembers the last Women’s World Cup final for reasons that have nothing to do with soccer. That was the day she became an aunt for the first time, with youngter sister Abigail giving birth to a son in Northern California while Naeher watched from the sidelines as the United States defeated Japan in Vancouver.
Naeher expects to make more memories this summer when the next World Cup kicks off again in France, although adding relatives won’t be among them.
“Well, nobody’s pregnant at this point,” she said Friday. “So it won’t be that again.”
What it probably will be is Naeher’s first World Cup as a starter. After five years spent mainly as Hope Solo’s backup, Naeher seized the national team job following the 2016 Olympics and is poised to become only the third woman, after Solo and Briana Scurry, to start a World Cup game in goal for the U.S. in 24 years.
At 31, it’s an opportunity Naeher has awaited for a long time.
“I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason,” said Naeher, who will be in the lineup when the U.S. meets South Africa on Sunday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara in the first game of a three-game World Cup send-off series. “And everything that has kind of transpired over the course of these last 10 years has led me to this exact position.”
It has been a little longer than 10 years because the road to France probably began at her Connecticut high school, where Naeher, a sharp-shooting point guard who scored more than 2,000 points, turned down basketball for soccer. It quickly proved a wise choice when Naeher led a U.S. team that included Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux to the U-20 World Cup title in 2008, giving up just one goal in the tournament.
That was followed by two seasons in Germany, where Naeher got exactly what a young, talented goalkeeper needs: an opportunity.
“You can train as much as you want, but at the end of the day a lot of our growth in that position and the evolution of the decision-making, you can only train [for] that so far. Then you have to play,” she said. “Because you can’t replicate games.”
But her opportunity with the national team was blocked by Solo, who played a record 202 games in goal, losing just 11 of them. At one point she went 55 games without a loss. So while Naeher made the roster for both the 2015 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, she never broke a sweat during a game in either tournament.
Solo’s national team career then ended in controversy when she punctuated an upset loss in the Olympic quarterfinals by calling the victorious Swedes “a bunch of cowards,” earning a six-month suspension that ended in retirement. Naeher took over and hasn’t looked back, losing just three times in 36 games, half of which have ended in a shutout.
And all that has quieted talk about whether she’s ready for the World Cup stage.
“You need a goalkeeper to make a big save and keep us in a game at times, of course,” coach Jill Ellis said. “But I feel like [in] the last two years we’ve played stronger opponents than we did leading up to 2015. And those are big games Alyssa’s had.”
She also has big-game experience in other ways, because while she didn’t play in the last World Cup, she did everything else the team did.
“The preparation stays the same for everybody whether you’re playing or not,” she said. “The same video, the same meetings, the same trainings. The same all of that.
“To know what it’s like to experience — OK, we play, we travel, we have two, three days in between — understanding that rhythm, understanding that cycle is helpful.”
This time the cycle will end in France, where Naeher’s family will join her in the hopes of giving her nephew a fourth birthday party he won’t soon forget.