cover photo from USA Today
After hosting their second annual SheBelieves Cup, the US Women's National Team suffered a last place finish. The cup ended with a resounding 3-0 loss to France and while there was plenty of blame to share, many were left scratching their heads when looking at the goalkeeper position.
2017 could mark the start of the post-Hope Solo era. Solo amassed 202 caps and over a hundred shutouts dating back to 2000. But over the last decade, there has been little room in the USWNT for any other goalkeeper but Solo. The ever-reliable backup Nicole Barnhart earned 54 caps while Alyssa Naeher and Ashlyn Harris have now combined for a dozen appearances each. However, as we enter 2017, Alyssa Naeher is the only goalkeeper under thirty with any caps under her belt.
For both the men's and women's programs, the US has a habit of going all-in on a handful of goalkeepers, without worry that they'll need to strengthen the rest of the pool. While clubs are the bigger factor in developing a player, the national teams offer a gauge for just how well those players are being developed. If a national team isn't bringing in young players periodically, it isn't preparing for the next cycle as adequately as it should.
How the USMNT Got Here
In similar fashion, USYNT teams rarely bring in new competition for their starting goalkeepers. Goalkeepers will regularly start and finish a cycle, with little competition brought in to up the level of play. For every other goalkeeper in the US, they're left to play and practice as they wish. However, as the men's team is starting to realize now, focusing solely on a few goalkeepers for each U20 World Cup cycle isn't enough to create a steady stream of elite goalkeepers. Right now, the USMNT team should be turning to Brian Perk, Sean Johnson, or any other retired USYNT goalkeeper, but they aren't panning out. Colleges have picked the slack for years now, producing several top goalkeepers over the years, despite many not spending time with USYNT programs.
Another issue the USMNT faced was getting collegiate players to transition into MLS. Until five years ago, there wasn't much of a stepping stone between college and MLS. In 2015, the USL exploded, doubling the size of their league and offering more space to recent graduates. This created a nice progression for young goalkeepers to go to college, USL, then MLS, all the while getting playing time and appropriate competition. Players can skip certain levels if they're good enough but the bigger point is that the pyramid is fleshed out to give a variety of playing levels. Now the USMNT must figure out how to take players from MLS and place them into elite leagues. Europe isn't the solution for every player, nor will MLS ruin everyone's career, but in the last five years we've seen more players return to MLS instead of using it as a stepping stone elsewhere.
The women's game has a similar issue, although they aren't missing the elite league. The NWSL serves as the correct end piece but they don't have the appropriate stepping stone for seniors coming out of college.
It's hard for young players to get playing time in the NWSL. The ten team league will always start a veteran over a young goalkeeper, as premier leagues should. On top of that, roster space is still very limited within the NWSL. Each NWSL signs only two goalkeepers while perhaps keeping an additional one in training, offering only housing and food to cover their time spent with the club. For the goalkeepers who don't make the cut as one of twenty goalkeepers in the NWSL, there isn't much left for them. There are over a hundred teams in amateur leagues (WPSL and UWS), but the summer leagues are best suited for collegiate athletes looking for a few games in the off-season. Even the quality of players in those leagues are often underwhelming, with the majority of the American-based players coming from Division II, Division III, or NAIA schools.
Some may look to NWSL expansion as a solution to getting more roster spots for goalkeepers. If the league were to double in size, goalkeepers would perhaps benefit then. As of right now, the league is slow to expand, only adding two teams in their five years. Right or wrong, steady expansion will do little to aide goalkeepers without clubs.
Unfortunately the US isn't the place to develop goalkeepers. Graduated seniors don't need more training, they need playing time. Perhaps in five or ten years down when there are more teams for goalkeepers to fill, but in the meantime goalkeepers need clubs. Over the last couple years we've seen a number of collegiate seniors head to the land of opportunity: Europe.
Lindsey Harris (UNC '16) - FH, Iceland
Kelsey Brouwer (Middle Tennessee '16) - Apollon Limassol, Cyprus
Emily Dolan (FGCU '16) - Zaccaria, Italy
Morgan Stearns (UVA '16) - Sundsvalls, Sweden
Megan Kufeld (Washington '15) - Sundsvalls, Sweden
Madalyn Schiffel (San Francisco '15) - Avaldsnes, Norway *
Bryane Heaberlin (UNC '15) - Turbine Potsdam, Germany *
Alyssa Giannetti (Cal Poly '15) - Arna-Bjørnar, Norway
Kate Scheele (Colorado '15) - Kungsbacka, Sweden **
* - returned stateside
** - retired
Europe provides two important aspects in helping goalkeepers continue their development to become USWNT-ready. First is playing time. Goalkeeper development in Europe is still fairly thin for the women's side and every year the NCAA is producing hundreds of collegiate seniors, many of which are more than proficient enough to play somewhere in Europe. They would get the playing time that the NWSL can't promise them. Secondly, playing abroad strengthens a goalkeeper in a way playing domestically does not. Ask any professional overseas, playing abroad brings unique challenges on and off the field. It's easier to play in the US but if goalkeepers are looking to become elite, it won't be an easy road. Europe might not be the ideal place to develop goalkeepers, but it's better than what the US currently has to offer.
If the USWNT wants to continue to develop elite goalkeepers, the focus shouldn't be on expanding the NWSL. Although there are many positives to expansion, it would create only a few more roster slots and ultimately do little to bolster the goalkeeping position. More professional teams in the US would be ideal, but it's far down the road from 2017. The USSF needs to find a solution to fill the gap between NCAA and NWSL. NCAA is producing at least a dozen goalkeepers every year that could make the jump to the professional ranks, but too many hang up the cleats after their collegiate career ends.
Currently Europe is in need of goalkeepers and we have too many to know what to deal with. If the USSF focused on placing ten collegiate seniors every year (2-4 in NWSL and 8-6 overseas) then keeping the depth chart full won't be an issue, not to mention crafting more elite goalkeepers. For players going overseas, they would only need to play overseas for two-three years before either coming back to the NWSL, or gaining a larger paycheck in a higher league in Europe.
The USSF can't let the NWSL solve all their developmental issues. It's a great league, but it has its limitations. The men's national team once held the world standard for goalkeeping but they're now left with zero elite goalkeepers. For the USWNT, there is much to learn about the men's situation, which could quickly become theirs if they're not paying attention.