The time has finally come for the U.S. Women’s National Team to head to France to defend their World Cup title. A year ago, captain Carli Lloyd and friends stormed the pitch in the finals against Japan, taking a 4-0 lead in just 16 minutes. Lloyd herself netted three of those goals, the final one on a perfectly arced shot from midfield that grazed the keeper’s outstretched hand and bounced home. The Japanese team kept fighting, much to their credit, but the damage had been done and when the final whistle blew, the U.S. was victorious 5-2.
Since then, a few members of the team have moved on, including Abby Wambach, who was 35 when she logged 297 minutes and one goal during the 2015 World Cup. But the biggest hole in this year’s roster is the one left by Hope Solo, whose talent was matched only by her ego. Solo was 33 during the 2015 World Cup, when she allowed just three goals while in net for all 630 minutes. This performance included five clean sheets and helped people forget, at least temporarily, about her off-field issues.
Solo was a member of the USWNT for the three previous World Cups, making 17 starts during which she allowed just 12 goals and compiled a record of 12-1-4 with 10 clean sheets. This will mark the first time that someone other than Solo will be in goal for the USWNT in the World Cup since Brianna Scurry in 2007, who lost 0-4 to the Brazilians in the semi-finals and then helped win the third-place match over Norway, 4-1, three days later.
Scurry’s presence in net for the semis sparked controversy, as Solo’s brilliant work in goal had been key to the team’s success up to that point, but coach Greg Ryan valued Scurry’s experience and past success against the Brazilians. After the match, Solo lit Ryan up, telling reporters afterward, “There’s no doubt in my mind I would have made those saves… It doesn’t matter what somebody did in an Olympic gold medal game in the Olympics three years ago. Now is what matters, and that’s what I think.” Those comments led to her teammates coming together to back her suspension for their final game of the tournament.
Now it’s Solo who’s a big name from the past. Solo and the USWNT parted ways seemingly for good following the 2016 Olympics, when they lost to Sweden on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals, during which Solo appeared to try to ice the Swedes by calling time and taking several minutes to change her gloves. Making matters worse, Solo went on to call the Swedes “a bunch of cowards.” She was again suspended, this time for six months, and hasn’t been with the team since.
Now it’s up to Alyssa Naeher to mind the net for the Women’s team, but she is untested in international play at the grown-ups’ table. She was the keeper for the 2008 team that won the U-20 Women’s World Cup, allowing just one goal over four games and winning the Golden Glove as best keeper of the tournament. She was subsequently on the roster of the 2015 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, but never managed to get any playing time.
Naeher is a talented goalie, but no one is under any illusions that she’s the next Hope Solo or even the next Brianna Scurry. At 31 years old, she’s already too old to have that kind of career. Still, she’s been great since taking over the job, as the team hasn’t lost a match since July 28, 2017, when they fell 0-1 to Australia. She was particularly great in 2018, going undefeated in 15 matches while allowing just 7 goals.
The USWNT’s has also managed to stay atop the FIFA rankings due to a renewed focus on offense, as witnessed by the fact that in their last five friendlies they’ve scored 22 goals. Oddsmakers have their doubts though, giving a slight edge to the host French team, who head into play ranked fourth in the world. In addition to having home-field advantage, the French are younger. If each team advances, they would meet in the quarterfinals, which could very well be the de facto final.
Catch all the Women’s World Cup action starting with France vs. South Korea Friday at 3pm ET on FS1; the U.S. Women’s National Team’s World Cup title defense begins Tuesday, June 11, at 3pm on FOX.