Concacaf qualifying on the women’s side is usually the United States Show - the US massively outclasses most of the minnows it inevitably must face on its path to the World Cup. It’s just a sad fact of the relative support these sides get in terms of money, attention, and prestige. But every four years, there’s usually at least one story that jumps out from the tournament, a team that has come this far despite the odds and stands out for playing way above expectations. There were a lot of stories like that this year, but one that immediately drew attention and had woso twitter buzzing every time she touched the ball was Panama’s 17-year-old starting goalkeeper, Yenith Bailey.
First of all, Bailey is 17 and starting for her national team in a World Cup qualification tournament; her work in goal helped boost Panama all the way to the third-place game against Jamaica, particularly with a stunning 2-0 upset over Mexico. Second, Bailey has only been a goalkeeper for one year. Just let that percolate for a second. Jon Arnold reported in Goal that Bailey was a midfielder a year ago before Panama’s head coach converted her to a goalkeeper, presumably because he saw she’s got truckloads of chutzpah and the brain to know how to use it.
You might have seen that come into play when the United States beat Panama 5-0. It sounds a bit condescending to say it could have been much worse, but it honestly could have been much worse but for Bailey making big saves and stuffing Carli Lloyd more than once. You saw it in how multiple US players, including Lloyd, went directly to Bailey after the match to shake her hand and maybe give her a few words of encouragement - after all, getting scored on five times has to feel pretty bad no matter how realistic you are about your underdog team’s chances against the juggernaut US.
Bailey seemed to bounce back after a rest, though, starting in Panama’s last game of quals against Jamaica - another great story for the tournament, as they rallied around talented forward Khadija Shaw to qualify for their first ever World Cup.
Even though Jamaica ended up winning the game and the World Cup berth (Panama can still qualify through a two-legged playoff with Argentina), Bailey was very much one of the heroes of the game, and it’s not hard to see why. She set twitter on fire when she had to come up HUGE on this double save to keep Panama within one goal of Jamaica.
First she makes the deflection on the shot to parry it away, then she somehow manages to scramble back and palm the ball down before it crosses the line. I mean, look at the side view of this. It’s ridiculous. And she somehow manages to not fall back in the goal, instead staying on her feet so she can smother any attempt at a rebound.
Les gardiennes n'ont pas de réflexes #YenithBailey pic.twitter.com/oW0te89QwY— Cœurs de Foot (@coeursdefoot) October 18, 2018
Just a quick reminder: Yenith Bailey is 17 years old and was converted from playing midfield a year ago. Afterwards, even Hope Solo and Nadine Angerer had to tweet about Bailey, who was awarded the golden glove for the tournament.
The Panamanian goalkeeper Yenith Bailey is awarded the Golden Glove of the Concacaf Women’s Championship for her astonishing performances!— Concacaf (@Concacaf) October 18, 2018
La guardameta Panameña Yenith Bailey es premiada con el Guante de Oro de la Concacaf Women’s Championship!#CWC | @fepafut | pic.twitter.com/S9wX8Pokiw
In a tournament where the United States didn’t give up a single goal, Bailey deservedly took home the golden glove. It’s one thing to get a clean sheet when you have not just a great back line in front of you but an entire field’s worth of players keeping the ball in the other half; it’s another to push your team to within inches of their first trip to the World Cup by making 24 saves in group stage alone. Did we mention she’s been a goalkeeper for one year.
Anyway, the question on a lot of people’s minds now is what next? It would be almost criminal for Bailey not to get more development as a goalkeeper in a top training environment. She’s not quite ready for pro, performance notwithstanding, so does that mean NCAA? As she mentioned to Goal, the English requirement can make American university a difficult prospect. But surely she’s not the first international player who’s been recruited despite not having a grasp of English yet. Hopefully there are recruiters out there who now have their eye on her, if NCAA is what she wants.
Maybe a reserve team, or joining an NWSL club as their #3 goalkeeper? Not every NWSL team goes down to #3 on the depth chart right now because of roster limits, but hopefully Bailey will pop up somewhere, getting the training she needs. Maybe this will inspire even more support for the Panama WNT and developing domestic women’s soccer, including Bailey’s club, San Francisco. When you make a splash like that, the sky should be the limit.