Advertisement

Women’s national soccer team is eager to face Netherlands after ‘crazy year’

Alyssa Naeher of Chicago Stars makes a save.
Alyssa Naeher will goalkeep for the Americans on Friday against Netherlands.
(Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

Alyssa Naeher should have been in training camp team last spring, preparing for the NWSL season with the Chicago Red Stars and the Summer Olympics with the national team. Instead, the two-time World Cup champion goalkeeper found herself standing alone on the roof of a Chicago parking garage, kicking a ball against a wall.

“Just me, the ball and the wall,” Naeher said. “That was my go-to spot for a few months.”

From the time they join their first teams as toddlers, many elite athletes live lives controlled by a schedule: practice, travel, game, repeat. The coronavirus outbreak changed all that, shutting down cities, leagues, even entire sports for months and forcing players like Naeher to improvise and find their own ways to stay sharp.

“Obviously this year has certainly been different in terms of scheduling and preparation,” said Naeher, 32, who is expected to start Friday when the women’s national team faces the Netherlands in Breda, Holland, in the Americans’ first game since early March. “As athletes we rely on our preparation. That’s certainly been different this year. The biggest thing has just been to stay as ready as we can.”

Advertisement

For a couple of months that meant kicking a ball against a wall. Gently.

LAFC loses to Seattle in the playoffs for the second consecutive year after Carlos Vela misses a penalty kick and a goal is disallowed upon review.

“I only had two balls. So I had to be careful with what I was doing,” she said.

The NWSL eventually gathered for a 23-game tournament, played within a protective quarantine, in early summer and another hastily organized 18-game tournament in the fall. But the full national team, which typically plays in competitions arranged months if not years in advance, has gone more than eight months without a match, its longest break in more than three decades.

Advertisement

“It’s been so great to be back with the team,” said midfielder Sam Mewis, who played in six games in the 2019 World Cup in France before joining Manchester City of the Women’s Super League this year. “It’s been obviously a crazy year. It’s important to get us together.“

Partly because it brings at least a brief period of structure and camaraderie to a year that has had little of either.

“There’s been some opportunity for some personal growth along the way,” said Naeher, who Wednesday was named to the FIFA shortlist for world’s best goalkeeper, the only American to make the cut in any category. “The biggest thing this year, in a year of uncertainty, is just controlling what you can control. And what I can control is staying fit, staying mentally sharp, staying as ready as I can be.”

Manchester City's Sam Mewis controls the ball ahead of Everton players during the Women's FA Cup final on Nov. 1.
(Cath Ivill / Associated Press)
Advertisement

How long that uncertainty will continue is … well, uncertain. Friday’s game will be the ninth and final one of 2020, the fewest for a women’s national team since 2009. The Tokyo Olympics, postponed last summer, are scheduled to begin in July but with COVID cases blowing up worldwide, there’s no guarantee that will happen.

“We’re hoping that the Olympics go ahead next year,” Mewis said.

In the meantime coach Vlatko Andonovski, unbeaten in 10 games since taking over for Jill Ellis 13 months ago, is trying to keep his players focused and motivated without lowering the bar for performance

“It’s been a difficult year for us all together,” said Andonovski, whose team is riding a 31-game unbeaten streak. “The goal, every time we step on the field, we also want to raise the standards and continue building on what we’ve built, or started building, at the beginning of the year.

Advertisement

“This will definitely help us.”

Diego Maradona, who led Argentina to victory in the 1986 World Cup but was tormented by drug abuse and illness in his later years, has died at 60.

Friday’s game will be a rematch of the last World Cup final, although both teams are missing key pieces. The U.S. will be without reigning world player of the year Megan Rapinoe, who hasn’t trained since March, and Carli Lloyd, a two-time world player of the year who is rehabilitating a knee injury. But Andonovski will have Alex Morgan for the first time this year.

The Dutch will be missing forward Vivianne Miedema, the team’s all-time leading scorer and one of 11 nominees for world player of the year. She has a hip injury.

Advertisement

But the Netherlands has an edge in that it has played three times in the last 10 weeks — winning three Euro qualifiers by a combined 14-0 — while the Americans have been idle.

“Obviously the Netherlands are a top team. And a tough opponent for us to be facing. That’s exciting,” Naeher said. “You always want to play those types of teams, the most competitive matches.”

It sure beats kicking the ball against the wall of a parking garage.


Advertisement
Advertisement