Alyssa Naeher has big gloves to fill.
Since the beginning of 2017, the starting goalkeeper for the U.S. women has compiled a 24-3-3 record. Her goals-against average is a dazzling 0.70.
And in 100 days, none of it will matter.
The World Cup kicks off June 7 in France, where the United States will be heavy favorites to repeat as champions. But while the Americans return many of the mainstays from the 2015 team – Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, Julie Ertz, Becky Sauerbrunn, Tobin Heath – there is one noticeable change.
Naeher will be in goal, not Hope Solo. While Naeher has plenty of experience – she has made 40 appearances for the Americans, and was on the roster for both the 2015 World Cup and 2016 Olympics – the World Cup will be her first major tournament as the starting goalkeeper.
“She’s a terrific goalkeeper, and probably top-10 in the world. But it’s her first major tournament. All eyes will be on her,” said veteran broadcaster J.P. Dellacamera, who Fox announced Wednesday as lead for its coverage, along with Aly Wagner.
“I think Solo always gave the team an advantage physically,” Dellacamera said. “Opponents knew it’s going to be tough to beat Hope Solo on that day. Good as Alyssa Naeher is, until she gets that experience, gets those reps, gets that confidence, she won’t have that.”
Solo was, quite possibly, the best goalkeeper the women’s game has seen. She was pivotal to the U.S. winning the 2015 World Cup and Olympic gold in both 2008 and 2012, as well as the U.S. reaching the final of the 2011 World Cup.
She was an imposing sight in goal, always seeming to stand taller than her 5-foot-9 height. She had tremendous instincts and catlike reflexes, as well as an encyclopedia’s worth of knowledge of her opponents.
She wasn’t above a little gamesmanship, either. Early in the second half of the 2015 semifinal, Germany was awarded a penalty kick. As Celia Sasic lined up at the spot, Solo stalled, trying to throw the tournament’s leading scorer at the time off her rhythm.
Sure enough, Sasic’s kick sailed wide left.
Naeher might well have that same moxie. It just hasn’t been seen by the masses yet.
That relative inexperience might be irrelevant, however. Morgan is playing at such a high level – she scored almost a goal a game last year – and the Americans have no shortage of additional weapons, so it’s possible Naeher won’t be tested much.
“They’ll have a confidence no one else will have certainly, and the largest number of players to have been in a World Cup and be successful,” Dellacamera said. “When they pick their (23-person team), it’ll be the best 23 in the world. When they pick their starting 11, it’ll be the best starting 11. They’ll have the best coach in the world, in my opinion.”
But Germany and France can’t be overlooked. Germany is always strong, and France will be playing in front of an adoring fan base still delirious from its men winning the World Cup last year.
“The home-field advantage is going to be so big for France,” Dellacamera said. “But does it put them under more pressure? Do they fall under the weight of that pressure? Or do they use the energy of that 12th person?
“If the U.S. has to play France in the quarterfinals, one of the favorites is going to be out early.”
The U.S. opens play on June 11 against Thailand, then plays Chile (June 16) and Sweden (June 20) in Group F. All of the U.S. matches will be on Fox, and all 52 matches of the tournament will air live. A record 22 games will air on Fox, and another 27 on FS1.
The remaining three – all during the group stage – will be on FS2.
“It’s a great feeling, first of all, to call any game with the U.S. I consider it an honor,” said Dellacamera, who has covered 14 World Cups. “The difference in the women’s case and the men is the women are always – always — a favorite or the favorite to win a tournament, whether it’s the World Cup or the Olympics.
“Not only are they the favorite or one of the favorites, but they’re expected to win it.”
The U.S. women have a clear goal. It’s up to Naeher to protect it.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.