U.S. women’s soccer goalkeepers enjoy healthy competition

It’s nearly impossible for Alyssa Naeher to hold in a complimentary shout out when her teammate makes a great save.

And Ashlyn Harris swears she’s not secretly hoping Naeher trips during training.

Only one can win the starting goalkeeping job for the U.S. women’s national team, but the position competition is not contentious.

“Competition is everywhere here. I think it’s a valuable thing. I think it’s a good thing,” Harris, also the Orlando Pride’s goalkeeper, told the Orlando Sentinel after training with the U.S. national team Wednesday at ChampionsGate.

“In the past, we’ve understood how it can be, and we are the ones who have to change that. We do a good job of making it competitive, but we put our arms around each other. That’s the environment we choose to create because now it’s ours and we want to make it as healthy and enjoyable as possible.”

The squad is training in Orlando ahead of the SheBelieves Cup, a competition featuring the United States, Germany, France and England playing in three doubleheaders at three different venues over a seven-day period. Play kicks off March 1st in Philadelphia, when England faces France and the Americans take on reigning Olympic champion Germany.

Pride defender Ali Krieger and forward Alex Morgan also were among the 25 players called into camp. Morgan is playing in France at the moment but will join the team closer to the tournament, according to a spokesman for the national team.

Harris, 31, and Naeher, 28, are joined by 22-year-old goalkeeper Jane Campbell. They’re competing for the starting role vacated by Hope Solo, who is serving a six-month suspension from national team competition for calling Sweden "a bunch of cowards" after the Americans’ Olympic quarterfinal elimination.

Harris and Naeher have toggled each other on the depth chart the past few years. In 2015-16, Harris played catch-up after suffering an injury and Naeher won the backup role at the Olympics. Harris served as an alternate.

They have completely different style of goalkeeping — Harris is aggressive, great at one-versus-one confrontations and Naeher is more reserved and technical — but very similar philosophies on mentality and rivalry: focus on what you can control, try not to think too much about what the coaches’ decision will be, but make it a difficult decision for them.

“It’s showing up every day to training, bringing my best game and not really reading into things too much,” Naeher said. “My job is to come out and play and just see where that takes me. Obviously it’s a competitive position, only one of us plays…but I think it’s a healthy competition. 

“Even when we’re playing five-on-five against each other, sometimes I catch myself yelling down the field when she makes a good save, ‘Great save Ash!’ I have a lot of respect for her and what she does, and I think it’s mutual. At the end of the day, we just want to have fun and continue to make strides and improve our games.”

That positive relationship has been cultivated over years and it’s rubbing off on the new generation of keepers getting called up.

Campbell smiled and laughed as she described the dynamic between Harris and Naeher, saying “I think they’re really close and they have a really good friendship. It’s awesome seeing them compete with each other and hopefully I’m helping them push each other.”

When asked what it takes to maintain a spot as one of the national team’s goalkeepers, Campbell effused a similar mentality of teamwork, using phrases like “roll with the punches” and “go with the flow.”

“It’s about doing what's asked of you, knowing your role, embracing that and not being too stubborn,” she said.

The competition may be friendly, but it's still fierce. Each goalkeeper wants the job and for Harris and Naeher, it’s something they've aspired to since their first national team call-ups in 2009.

Naeher described the end of each soccer cycle, a World Cup followed by the Olympics, as hitting a reset button. Her goal after hitting reset last summer was to figure how to earn a starting role in the new cycle, regardless of whether Solo, 35, was with the team or not. 

And the position of backup goalkeeper doesn’t exist in Harris’ mind.

“I don’t ever show up to training, even when Hope’s here, saying, ‘I’m a No. 2’,” Harris said. “I’m not doing her a favor, I’m not doing anyone a favor, I’m not doing this team a favor. So whether she’s here, whether she’s not here, every day I show up and I’m like, ‘How can I be completely focused and completely confident and consistent?’

“If I answer and check those boxes, I should be on the field.”

ardelgallo@orlandosentinel.com

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