There haven’t been a lot of questions about this 18-player Olympic roster. It’s been fairly obvious that Jill Ellis has had most of the positions on it set in her mind for a while, with only a few questions, mostly in the midfield.
So this isn’t so much an actual breakdown of who will be the WNT’s goalkeepers in Rio, because we know with 100% certainty one of them will be Hope Solo and the other will be there because you have to carry at least two goalkeepers on your Olympic roster.
This is not to insult the #2 keeper, whoever that may be. Right now the only two realistic options are Ashlyn Harris and Alyssa Naeher, and based on Ellis’ recent preference for Naeher, it looks like she’ll make the Rio roster and Harris will end up an alternate.
But the problem here is the vast gulf of experience between Hope Solo and her backup, whether that’s Harris or Naeher or anyone else on the fringes of the GK pool. Ashlyn Harris has eight caps for the United States and her last appearance for the team was September 17, 2015 as a second-half sub against Haiti. Alyssa Naeher has six caps and her last appearance was April 10, 2016 against Colombia. With US Soccer trumpeting Hope Solo’s 99 career shutouts left and right, you can bet neither Harris nor Naeher will see another cap until Solo reaches 100 - hopefully against South Africa on July 9, at which point they can stop chasing numbers and actually give their backups some experience.
Experience has been the key problem in the goalkeeper pool and probably one of the most vocalized complaints from WNT fans (and experts) every time a starting XI comes out ahead of a game. There’s zero reason Hope Solo needs to be in net for games like a 5-0 drubbing of Ireland or a 7-0 knockout against Colombia. And in fact Alyssa Naeher got a rare cap during the United States’ 10-0 win against Puerto Rico during CONCACAF Olympic qualifying. See? She gets 90 minutes to focus in net and work with the back line, the United States still wins like crazy, and everyone benefits.
But Naeher and Harris still aren’t getting enough caps in the big games against tough opponents. For example: the She Believes tournament, a four-team invitational that pitted the US against France, Germany, and England in a series of friendlies. What an amazing opportunity in an Olympic year for backup goalkeepers to get high-level experience that could benefit them in Brazil but with very little consequence to the program. Instead, Hope Solo played all three games and Harris and Naeher got to go kick turf.
There’s two really dumb connected reasons at play here: 1) US Soccer’s crippling fear of losing and 2) US Soccer’s own hype train built on individual names and their arbitrary records. The hype train is predicated on the shiny image of the USWNT as a team that Always Wins No Matter What and creates a feedback loop that prevents them from risking a loss in order to experiment with the roster.
So that’s how you get Hope Solo, 196 caps, Ashlyn Harris eight caps, Alyssa Naeher six caps, despite Harris and Naeher being about a cycle behind Solo in terms of development. True, Solo did have usual backup Nicole Barnhart right behind her and above Harris and Naeher in the pecking order for a number of years, and Barnhart retired from the national team with 54 caps. Jill Loyden also used to be in the pool as the #3 keeper. But Barnhart hasn’t played a game since October 27, 2013, as a second half sub against New Zealand, and Loyden retired from soccer in October of 2014, with her last cap coming as a second-half sub against China PR on April 6, 2014. You’re telling me in the over two years and 55 games since Loyden’s last cap, there was only room for Harris and Naeher to get a combined 12 caps? And consider that several of those caps weren’t full 90s, but were half-games?
After the World Cup, it looked like Ellis was at least trying to gradually work in Harris and Naeher, giving them halves here and there as the WNT embarked on its Victory Tour. Naeher even got a full 90 against China PR on December 13, 2015, a game that ended in a 2-0 win for the US. Naeher has also gotten two caps in 2016, one the above game against Puerto Rico and one against Colombia on April 10. But everything else in 2016 has been Solo, which makes it seem like Jill Ellis’ goalkeeping plan for the Olympics is "keep Hope Solo healthy."
Sure, that was her strategy in 2011, 2012, and 2015, and to her credit, Solo was up to the challenge. It’s not like Ellis doesn’t have an ample body of evidence to point to if anyone brings up the decision. If you don’t have to replace her while she’s performing well, why should you? But backups are not about what is optimal, they’re about the Plan B. They’re the people you rely on if, knock on wood, your Plan A gets hurt or carded or is otherwise not available. And it behooves Jill Ellis to have the strongest Plan B possible, instead of just saying she’ll have a Plan A and Plan B can stay theoretical forever.
It’s also really not good for the future of the program. Does Hope Solo have another cycle left in her that she’ll still be a starter in 2019? She’d be 38 going on 39 by then, which is a bit on the grey side even for a goalkeeper. Hopefully between now and then not only will Harris and Naeher finally get more and better playing time, but the goalkeepers lined up behind them like A.D. Franch and Abby Smith will also get proper development. It’s imperative for the continued dominance of the WNT that this record-first mentality dies a swift death and coaches are allowed to be concerned only with which player is best for the team.