Nae­her is play­ing lead role for U.S.

She has es­tab­lished her­self as the No. 1 goal­keeper with Solo out of the pic­ture.

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Kevin Bax­ter kevin.bax­ter@la­ Twitter: @kbax­ter11

Alyssa Nae­her may be the best women’s goal­keeper you’ve never heard of.

But that has less to do with Nae­her than it does with the woman who long played in front of her on the U.S. na­tional team.

Hope Solo is undis­put­edly the best goalie in women’s soc­cer his­tory. In 15 years she won 153 games and posted 102 shutouts in 195 starts. No other keeper — male or fe­male — has come close to match­ing any of those num­bers.

So for eight years Nae­her mainly sat and watched and waited her turn. This year, with Solo out of the pic­ture, she’s fi­nally get­ting that chance.

“I’m just happy to have the op­por­tu­nity now,” she said. “Any time you get to step on the field, wear the crest, it’s a priv­i­lege and it’s an honor.”

Nae­her is making the most of it. On Thurs­day, in her eighth start of the year — one more than she had made in her na­tional team ca­reer be­fore 2017 — Nae­her shut out Ja­pan in a 3-0 U.S. vic­tory in the fi­nal game of the in­au­gu­ral Tour­na­ment of Na­tions, played be­fore an announced crowd of 23,161 at StubHub Center.

Nae­her was tested of­ten and she was equal to the chal­lenge, making five saves. She also got a gutsy as­sist from de­fender Julie Ertz, who cleared a shot by Ja­pan’s Mina Tanaka from in front of an open net late in the first half.

Me­gan Rapi­noe’s mas­ter­ful goal in the 12th minute proved the only of­fen­sive sup­port the U.S. would need. Mal­lory Pugh and Alex Mor­gan added sec­ond-half scores for the Amer­i­cans, who fin­ished sec­ond in the four-team tour­na­ment be­hind un­beaten Aus­tralia, a 6-1 win­ner over Brazil in Thurs­day’s first game.

The Aussies, who outscored op­po­nents 11-3 in their three wins, got two scores each from Caitlin Fo­ord and Lisa De Vanna and a goal and two as­sists from Sam Kerr.

As for Nae­her, if she can blame Solo’s play for the years she spent on the side­line, she can also credit her for the chance to play.

Solo, 36, was sus­pended by U.S. Soc­cer twice in her last two years for off-field in­ci­dents, the most re­cent coming dur­ing last sum­mer’s Rio Olympics, when she called the Swedish team “a bunch of cow­ards” af­ter it beat the U.S. in a quar­ter­fi­nal match.

Solo’s sus­pen­sion ex­pired in Fe­bru­ary but she wasn’t in­vited back and hasn’t played since last sum­mer. And with Ash­lyn Har­ris — the only other keeper to start more than once for the U.S. since 2013 — slowed by a quadri­ceps in­jury, the job is Nae­her’s to lose.

“Ob­vi­ously Alyssa’s our No. 1 goal­keeper,” said U.S. coach Jill El­lis, who has started Nae­her in five straight na­tional team games, making her the first U.S. keeper other than Solo to do that since 2011.

“The way play­ers get in form is many min­utes, many games, and hard games as well. That’s what I think the win­ning com­bi­na­tion is: min­utes, chal­leng­ing games and be­ing able to go through that cy­cle with­out in­ter­rup­tion.”

De­spite her lim­ited play­ing time with the na­tional team, Nae­her hardly qual­i­fies as in­ex­pe­ri­enced. She’s been a work­horse on the club level, play­ing more than 140 games for pro­fes­sional teams in the U.S. and Ger­many. In 2014, she was named the NWSL’s top goal­keeper and in the last two sea­sons with the Chicago Red Stars, she’s al­lowed less than a goal a game.

That con­fi­dence has car­ried over to the na­tional team, with Nae­her post­ing five shutouts in eight ap­pear­ances.

“She’s re­ally stepped into that role,” said de­fender Casey Short, a team­mate with both the Red Stars and the na­tional team. “She’s worked her butt off for this mo­ment. I don’t think she’s timid at all.

“She’s very pas­sion­ate and our leader.”

And at 29, she’s ar­guably just en­ter­ing the prime of her ca­reer — which is why Nae­her won’t al­low her­self to look back at the time she’s missed for fear of miss­ing what’s to come.

“It’s im­por­tant to stay present in the mo­ment,” Nae­her said. “This is what’s in front of me right now. I have the op­por­tu­nity to play — and play a few games back to back. It’s all for­ward think­ing.

“It’s ‘what can I do to be bet­ter to­mor­row. What can I do to keep im­prov­ing my game?’ ”

Mark J. Ter­rill As­so­ci­ated Press

ALYSSA NAE­HER stops a shot by Ja­pan dur­ing a 3-0 vic­tory for the U.S. at the Tour­na­ment of Na­tions.

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