Sponsored by Scoreboard Enterprises
By BOB YORK
Section 21; Row 4; Seat 7; Cloud 9: That’s where John Naeher spent much of his time earlier this summer watching his daughter, Alyssa, help lead the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team to the 2019 World Cup championship.
The sight of her holding up the cherished World Cup for all the world to see had to be one of those rare pinch-me moments for her father, as well as her mother, Donna Lynn, and twin sister, Amanda, who attended the tourney held throughout France. As for the hundreds of fans who showed up for the watch parties in the Christian Heritage School gymnasium back home in Trumbull, Conn., they had to feel pretty good about what they were witnessing, too.
Naeher’s performance on the world stage likely elicited memories for many who remember her storied career at Christian Heritage. The level of play she exhibited in goal, meanwhile, couldn’t help but rekindle recollections of how her reign of stinginess over NEPSAC opponents was rewarded by a Parade All-American nomination as well as the love she got from Soccer Buzz magazine, which rated her nationally as the No.1 high school goalie in her 2006 graduating class.
“We’re all just so happy for her … the hard work and personal sacrifice she and all of her teammates put into just making the team … let alone winning the World Cup … was off the charts,” said a delighted dad, who was his daughter’s soccer coach at CHS as well as her basketball coach, a sport that saw Alyssa and Amanda both score over 2,000 points during their prep school careers. “We’re just so excited for her.
“Playing at this level has been a lifetime dream for Alyssa,” added her father. “As a dad, you’re one of very few people who really knows what getting to this point entails and you just hope it turns out to be a great experience."
For Naeher, who was a three-time All-American, All-State and Fairchester Athletic Association All-Conference nominee during her CHS career, the sight of her grasping the World Cup shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. The Bridgeport, Conn., native has met with success at every level of the sport she has competed on and she came by that success early on.
Naeher got an initial taste of what playing for her country was all about during her CHS days when she was called up to play for the U.S. U-16 and U-17 national soccer teams, which, according to her father, would result in her missing somewhere between 38 to 45 school days of school, “but the school work never disappeared,” he quipped.
Naeher’s latest gig with the Red, White and Blue was her sweetest – as well as her best. Through seven World Cup games, she allowed just three goals for a minuscule .043 goals per game average and a hefty .800 save percentage. She chalked up four shutouts, including a 2-0 blanking of The Netherlands in the finale and along the way, became the first U.S. goalkeeper to post three shutouts during the group stage of the tourney.
Her stingy stats proved a key component to her team’s success because once the U.S. entered the Knock Out Phase of the tournament; Naeher’s teammates never gave her much wiggle room. Heading down the home stretch, Spain, France and England all fell by the slimmest of 2-1 margins and Naeher had to produce game-saving stops against Spain and France, then needed a spectacular diving save off a penalty kick against England in the 84th minute of a 90-minute semifinal game to ensure a third straight berth in the finals.
“I took a couple of deeps breaths and tried to stay focused,” Naeher explained during an interview with Fox Sports following the game. Then, when asked if it was the biggest save of her life, she responded with a smile, “Probably up there, yeah.”
“Just to feel my teammates excitement and joy … they have always had my back and I’ve always had theirs,” added Naeher, who was mobbed by her teammates immediately after the save. “To be able to share that moment together and play that out and finish out the game and get to the final was really exciting.”
Although this was Naeher’s second World Cup competition and her second World Cup title, it was undoubtedly her most satisfying tournament, as she rode the bench during the 2015 tourney, unable to escape the giant shadow cast by former all-world goalie Hope Solo. In fact, entering the 2019 tourney, Solo and Briana Scurry had combined to start 36 of the last 37 Women’s World Cup games.
Heading into this summer’s tournament, Naeher would have had to turn back time more than a decade to resurrect the last world competition in which she was able to contribute to her country’s success. Back in 2008 she won the coveted Golden Glove Award as the outstanding goalkeeper while helping lead the U.S. to the FIFA U-20 World Cup title.
Reflecting on both his daughters’ soccer careers, Naeher likes to think that the early exposure both received to numerous sports was one of the main reasons why they have enjoyed so much success.
“When they were little, say about three or four years old, I was the school AD and boys basketball coach and they’d tag along with me to the gym for practice … they became gym rats,” remembers Naeher. “The boys loved to practice with them and I think all the early positive experience they had in sports really paid off.
“I think, by age 11, we began to feel as though the girls were at a different athletic ability level than many of their peers,” added Naeher, “and by age 14, both girls were enrolling in advanced summer camps and both were holding their own.”
Despite the one-two punch the Naeher twins brought to the Christian Heritage lineup, which often included Naeher’s secret offensive weapon: Alyssa. Naeher would often bring her out of the goal and insert her into the offense to help Amanda with corner kicks.
“We never won any NEPSAC soccer titles,” said their dad. “We won some conference titles, but never any New England tournaments. We did better in basketball, though. During their junior year we made it to the NEPSAC tournament finals, then we won it all their senior year.”
According to Naeher, Alyssa’s big break in soccer came at the age of 12 when Paul DelloStritto, a noted Connecticut goaltending coach, first saw her playing in net. He was impressed with her athleticism and offered to train her and the elder Naeher remembers DelloStritto telling him, “’she’s just too good not to have someone coach her.’”
In fact, DelloStritto told Caitlin Murray during an interview with The Athletic, “I remember saying to her early on that she could be as good as anybody who ever lived and I really believed that. All she needs is more hours trained and she should be the best. She has all the tools … why wouldn’t she be?”
Amanda, meanwhile, found a home at the other end of the field: forward. Today, she is the girls soccer coach at Charlotte (N.C.) Christian High School and ended up forging quite a career on the college soccer field, too. She opted for the Div. III route and played at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa., which has long been a national powerhouse in the sport. During her four years there, she tallied 220 points off 96 goals and 28 assists to help lead the school to four straight Final Four berths in the NCAA Div. III National Women’s Soccer Tournament. Messiah won two of those titles and Amanda was named the National Div. III Player of the Year following both title runs.
Alyssa, who was rated as the country’s premier girls soccer goalie coming out of high school, had over 100 top-tier college programs expressing interest in her services. Among those high on her wish list were North Carolina, Duke, Notre Dame, Texas A&M and Florida State, with her final choice being Penn State University. Today, a decade following her graduation, they’re still smiling in Happy Valley over the fact that she decided to stop by.
During her tour of duty with the Nittany Lions, Naeher chalked up a record of 54-19-5, including 24 shutouts. She also produced an .820 save percentage, stopping 301 of 367 shots. In total, she allowed 66 goals over 75 games for an 0.89 goals against average. Those credentials earned her First-Team All-American status as a sophomore, junior and senior as well as being named Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year her sophomore year.
That collegiate resume was obviously instrumental in the Boston Breakers selecting Naeher with the 11th pick of the 2010 National Women’s Soccer League Draft and a selection that ended up paying off big time. In 2014 she played every minute of the Breakers season and was named the league’s Goalkeeper of the Year after setting a league record by registering 106 saves in 24 games. In turn, it was her stingy play on the professional level that helped open the door to a roster spot on the 2015 World Cup team.
The following season, Boston traded Naeher to the Chicago Red Stars, where on Aug. 18, 2018, she was penciled into a NWSL starting lineup for the 100th time while earning a 2-2 tie against the Portland Thorns. Through three seasons in the Windy City, she has started 71 games, with 20 of them being classified in soccer terminology as “clean sheets” or in layman’s language: shutouts. In fact, during the 2016 campaign, Naeher established a league record for the longest streak without allowing a goal at 485 minutes, which figures out to be just over a five-and-one-half-game stretch.
Naeher’s celebrated life between the posts is about to come full cycle, however, as Christian Heritage is planning a homecoming for one this fall as arguably, its most celebrated alum ever is returning to campus. According to John Egan, the Christian Heritage athletic director and girls soccer coach, CHS is planning to honor Naeher sometime in October after her NWSL season ends.
“It’s going to be something truly special,” said Egan. “Alyssa’s really elevated the interest in soccer on campus and the kids can’t wait to meet her … she’s become a real hero around here.”
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