EAST HARTFORD, July 29 – Sunday night’s Tournament of Nations match between the U.S. women’s national team and Australia was more than 24 hours away but you could already see the focus on the face of Connecticut native Alyssa Naeher.
Naeher grew up in Seymour and now lives in Stratford. It’s her first trip home as the starting goalkeeper for the United States.
The Americans host Australia in the second round of the Tournament of Nations tournament at Rentschler Field in East Hartford Sunday night at 7 p.m. Japan and Brazil will battle in the early game at Rentschler Field beginning at 4:15 p.m.
It’s an outstanding collection of teams – four of the top eight teams in the world are here. Three – Australia, Japan and Brazil – have already qualified for next year’s FIFA World Cup in France. For the United States, the No. 1 ranked team in the world, this tournament is providing some vital preparation for the upcoming Concacaf women’s qualifying tournament on Oct. 4-17 in three U.S. locations.
Japan is ranked No. 6 in the world with Brazil at No. 7 and Australia at No. 8. The Americans began the tournament on Thursday night with a 4-2 victory over Japan with three goals from Alex Morgan while Australia beat Brazil, 3-1.
Naeher, 30, has waited a long time for her opportunity to play with the U.S. national team. She made her first appearance with the national team in 2014. But she was playing behind the legendary Hope Solo. Through 2016, she had nine caps (appearances) in goal.
But for the last two seasons, Naeher has been the goalie for the Americans. She was 10-2-1 in 13 appearances in 2017 with six shutouts. This year, she is 5-0-1 in six starts with a 0.50 goals against average and three shutouts. She is scheduled to play all three games in net in the Tournament of Nations for the United States. She secured the win Thursday’s 4-2 decision over Japan.
Earlier in her national team career, the 5-foot-9 Naeher may not have played the toughest schedule with Solo in front of you and that is understandable. Now, she is getting challenged all of the time.
“We’re exposing her to (those top teams) more and more,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. And Naeher continues to get better.
“Her distribution with her hands is phenomenal,” Ellis said. “The work with her feet is much, much better. Her choices, her selection, her confidence on the ball have all improved. Right now, she is competitive in the air.”
American forward Crystal Dunn has seen the growth in Naeher.
“I think Allyson is an incredible goalkeeper. Her voice is always there. Her presence is always there,” Dunn said. “She demands a lot from us. It’s been great to play in front of her and hear her instruct us on where we need to be.”
Naeher met with some media Saturday afternoon. She was polite but quiet. But it seemed she had somewhere go — she wanted to get to work on the Rentschler Field turf.
“She comes across as someone who is quite shy but she plays a position where you really can’t be shy,” Dunn said. “It’s fun to see her grow (to the point) where she is demanding (on the field). She is high strung and her voice is always heard.”
Added Dunn, “She has proven she is a top class goalkeeper and for her, it is about proving that every day.”
Because, chances don’t appear every day.
Naeher was a three-time All-American goalie at Penn State (2006-09), winning 50 games and pitching 24 shutouts. She was the top goalie at the FIFA Under 20 World Cup in 2008, giving up just one goal in the entire tournament as the United States won the title. She was the goalie of the year for the Boston Breakers in the National Women’s Soccer League in 2014 with a team-record 106 saves.
She was the backup goalie – behind Solo – on the American’s 2015 World Cup championship team. She was the backup goalie – behind Solo – on the 2016 U.S. Olympic team that finished fifth in Rio, Brazil.
“(Connecticut) is a special place for me,” Naeher said Saturday afternoon. “It’s exciting to be here with the team. I just look at every game as an opportunity to learn and continue to grow.”
Naeher and her American teammates will have to contend with Australia’s star forward – Sam Kerr, one of the top strikers in the world. She was the MVP of the NWSL in 2017 and is a teammate of Naeher on the Chicago Red Stars. Kerr has nine goals on the year so far in the NWSL and had a brilliant goal in Australia’s win over Brazil on Thursday night.
The United States got a hat trick from Alex Morgan on Thursday night against Japan and Morgan has scored 16 goals in her last 16 national team matches in the last two seasons. She has 89 goals in international play.
It is the seventh trip for the U.S. national team to Rentschler Field with the last trip coming in a 7-0 win over Columbia in April 2016 with Allie Long scoring twice while Dunn, Mallory Pugh, Carli Lloyd, Tobin Heath and Christen Press had single goals.
The U.S. has dominated the Australian series and leads it 25-1-2. The one loss, however, came in last year’s Tournament of Nations with the Matildas earning a 1-0 win as Australian goalie Lydia Williams made several great saves. That win lifted Australia to the 2017 Tournament of Nations championship.
Tickets are still available for the game. The American game against Australia will be broadcast on the cable network FS1.