Being able to learn from those who perform at the highest levels of the game is a great opportunity. There is no higher level than the World Cup and we were humbled to get the chance to speak with World Cup veteran and U.S. Women's National Team goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher! She spoke to us about her development through the U.S. youth national team system and the patience she had to reach the number one spot with the national team. Read everything she had to say below!
You were a star athlete in high school in both soccer and basketball; what made you choose to follow the soccer path?
I always loved both. My twin sister and I got involved with organized soccer at a very early age. I was fortunate enough to start getting involved with youth national team camps when I was 14 and from there I just stayed on that path. I started seeing that soccer was my best chance at having the opportunity to get a great college education.
You're from Connecticut but you ended up at Penn State University for college (amassing 88 appearances over 4 years); what were some of the major factors that lead you to PSU?
A few different things led me there. The head coach at the time, Paula Wilkins, had been one of my regional team coaches and I knew that I enjoyed playing for her. I knew that I wanted the chance to compete for the starting spot right away. With the starting goalkeeper at the time graduating, I was going to have that opportunity to win the job. I fell in love with the school the second I got to campus. The most important question my dad asked me during the whole process was, “If something happened day 1 that you couldn’t keep playing, would you still want to be here at the school” and when I could answer yes to that it just felt like the right fit.
You were in the US Youth National Team set up from a pretty early age and progressed through the system all the way to the full national team. You often see players fall out of the system after a few years; how did you manage to be a constant presence with the national team throughout the years?
I have always been surrounded by great coaches and teammates who continued to push me and help me develop. My goalkeeper coach, Paul Dellostritto, has trained me since I was 13 and all the way through college. He believed in me from day one and was a huge piece of my journey. I just tried to take everything one year at a time, stayed focused in the moment and focused on what I could control. What I could control was how I trained, my commitment to my team every training and game, being a good teammate and always giving 100% effort. I had parents who lovingly supported me and taught me to make my own decisions, without pushing me any particular direction.
You were drafted into the now defunct Women's Professional Soccer league (WPS). How has women's professional soccer developed over the years to what it is now with the NWSL?
We have grown from 6 teams in WPS to 9 teams in NWSL and will hopefully continue to grow. I think that the depth of talent on each roster continues to get better and better. I think that the league has learned from some of the failures of the WPS and has tried to avoid some of those same pitfalls.
We spoke a bit in the offseason about you being at the forefront of trying to help the women's game in the United States grow and become sustainable. What are your hopes for the future of the women's game?
I want to see the game continue to grow. I want the league to be a stable place for players to earn a living. The standards around the league have gone up since year one and they need to continue to make strides in those areas. It is something special to be able to play this game professionally and use it as a way of traveling the world and networking along the way. Like any business, you need money; which means investors and committed owners. We have come a long way over the years, it will still take time to get where we want to be as a league but we will get there.
You've played in the WPS, NWSL, as well as the top league in Germany. What is the level like compared to the United States? What are the biggest factors you have to adapt to both on and off the field during your time overseas?
Both US leagues and the German league were a very high level. With there being fewer teams in both of the US leagues there was more parity from the top to bottom which makes every single game highly competitive. The American leagues are run like every other professional sport here in the states so the season was all about making the playoffs and then playing in a championship game. In contrast, the German league operated like other football leagues around the world. You compete all year to win the shield as league winners, the top 2 teams qualified for the Champions league and the bottom two teams were relegated to the second division. The hardest adjustment for me playing overseas was the language barrier. Especially as a goalkeeper, communication is a huge piece of the game. When I first got over there, I had to write essential german words like “turn”, “man on”, “time”, “left” “right”, etc on the wrist of my glove until I learned what I needed to.
Over the last couple of years, you have grown into the number one role with the USWNT but you've been in the senior national team set up since 2014. How has your mentality changed as you've gone from more of a backup role to a full time starter?
My mentality has not changed a whole lot to be honest. I still try to take everything one day, one practice, one camp, one game at a time. I want to push my teammates every day as much as they push me. Even though only one goalkeeper plays, it is the group of us that prepares together for each game and tournament; we are our own mini team within the team. I always want to push myself to get better and better, I want to push my teammates, and I want to keep learning and growing.
You've won a youth World Cup as well as participating in the Women's World Cup in Canada and the summer Olympics in Brazil. What are some of your favorite memories from those experiences? What is the soccer culture like in the various countries you've been able to play in (specifically their response/support of women's soccer) compared to here in the United States?
With my U20 World Cup in Chile and the Olympics in Brazil I got to experience the South American passion for the sport. The city of Chillan in Chile, where we spent group play, embraced our team and it was amazing. The Olympics obviously didn’t have a great outcome. But the favorite moments for the 2 World Cups, outside of the obvious of the feeling of the gold medal being put around my neck, were just the moments with my teammates. Every tournament is a journey, a lot of ups and downs along the way and an experience that you cannot truly explain but the journey and all of the little moments along the way will be what stays with me.
As a role model for young goalkeepers all over the world, what's your best advice for the next generation looking to reach the heights you've been able to in your career?
Never stop learning. Over the years I have been fortunate to train with some of the best goalkeepers and coaches out there and I have developed my game from combining what I have learned or seen from every one. Take advantage of every training opportunity and game; ask questions so you understand why you are doing something rather than just doing an exercise or drill.
Last but not least...what was your initial reaction to your FIFA rating???
I hate to admit this but I have actually never played FIFA so I have no idea what my rating is.