By Laura Pappano
In a sport in which 90 minutes of intense play can yield a 0-0 score (say, last Saturday between the Boston Breakers and Sky Blue FC), goalkeeping matters — a lot. And as four WPS teams head into playoffs, there’s extra pressure on those in the net.
Boston Breakers head coach Tony DiCicco, a former goalkeeper for the US National Team, says it’s no coincidence that his second place team started to pick up momentum when rookie goalkeeper and top national recruit Alyssa Naeher won the starting job from Ashley Phillips. “Until she stabilized that position, we were giving up soft goals and this league is tough and you can’t do that,” he said, speaking in his office on the grounds of Harvard Stadium. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that when she became the starter that’s when our run of wins started.”
So what makes a good goalkeeper?
DiCicco, who drafted Naeher (he coached her on the championship U20 team) from Penn State, says Naeher’s athleticism lets her “get to some balls that most keepers can’t, balls in the corner. She has good explosive properties.” While he appreciates her physical talent, DiCicco says that Naeher — like other young keepers — has much to learn. Goalkeepers, he says, develop at a different rate than field players, often reaching their peak after age 30 when field players may be winding down.
“In my mind, the two most important aspects of goalkeeping are athletics and mental skills, ” he says, noting that mental skills are “slow learning skills.” “We can teach technique quickly, we can teach tactics quickly. But the game of soccer is a language.” DiCicco says that experience allows a goalkeeper to “read the game” and understand the possible ways a play will unfold when a ball is 30 yards up the field. “You can narrow the variable and that translates into anticipation.”
It is that ability to anticipate plays, he says, which makes him think little about stats like “saves.” A strong keeper, he says, organizes the defense to prevent shots and intercept balls before they become stat-worthy. So where does that leave Naeher (and her –um — 69 saves in 16 games)?
“The growth is getting her to play on her cutting edges,” says DiCicco. “In college, she just played at a comfort level and she keeps wanting to go back to that level.” The challenge, he says, is getting her to take a more aggressive starting position in front of the goal and to not be afraid to leave the penalty area and clear a ball with her feet.
For her part, Naeher — who got interested in goalkeeping because she had the hand-eye knack from playing basketball –says she tries not to get too revved up emotionally and while she pays attention to field players’ tendencies, tries not to over-think a situation so she can stay loose and react. Here’s what she had to say about her position:
On emotions: I just try to stay focused on not getting too high or too low at any point. [When an opponent scores] there is frustration and there is a I-should-have-had-it/it’s-my-fault feeling. But I try in the game to move on from it and then go back and look at film later. If I give up a goal, as long as I can look back and learn from it, then so be it.
On biggest change from college to pros: Speed of play. Everything is just quicker and the skill level – the forwards here can just hit it harder and are more accurate with their placement.
On facing shots from opponents: About 75-80 percent is about reading where they will go. But there is definitely some lucky guessing involved. [I don’t do too much pre-game study of opposing players because] I don’t want to get too focused in on their tendencies because they could change it up. I don’t want to have set in my mind that they are going in one direction and cheat in that direction too much. But I do notice which players are more comfortable with their left foot versus their right foot.
On toughest opposing player: Marta can definitely do things other players can’t do. She only needs half an inch of space to get a shot off.