Alyssa Naeher has reached soccer’s pinnacle by appearing in the 2019 World Cup and 2020 Tokyo Olympics for Team USA, but she didn’t fulfill her biggest childhood dreams in doing so. The 33-year-old goalkeeper told the Just Women’s Sports podcast she originally wanted to play basketball for coach Geno Auriemma at the University of Connecticut.
“Basketball was my first love…that’s what I thought I would do with my life,” Naeher said. “I prayed every morning when I was a kid, my parents can attest to it, of wanting to make the WNBA, I wanted to be a professional basketball player. I wanted to go to UConn.”
While basketball didn’t work out for Naeher, soccer certainly did. Naeher won the National Women’s Soccer League’s Goalkeeper of the Year award in 2014 and has since appeared in two World Cups for Team USA. In 78 matches with the Americans, Naeher recorded 44 clean sheets.
Naeher was particularly strong against penalty kicks during the 2019 World Cup, her first as a starter. It didn’t quite start that way, though, as she collected numerous penalties in those situations while scrimmaging before the tournament. Naeher’s former USWNT teammate Christen Press helped lead a mental turnaround in Naeher that also helped the Americans win the World Cup.
“I remember sitting in the little cool-down [area] and Christen comes up and she’s like, ‘Let’s take a walk,” Naeher recalled. “I go, ‘Okay.’ She’s like, ‘You need to change your mindset. You need to just let go of what happened, think ahead, it’s going to matter down the road and you need to be more positive with yourself and believe that you’re going to make a save and it’s going to make a difference.'”
Naeher brought that mindset into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but a knee injury in the semifinals prevented her from seeing it all the way through. The U.S. fell to Canada, 1-0, after Naeher left that game in the first half.
Team USA eventually won Olympic bronze in a 4-3 match with Australia.
“I’m going to be so mad at myself if somebody scores because I couldn’t do what I should normally be able to do,” Naeher recalled thinking after her injury. “When I took that goal kick, that was probably the worst pain I’ve ever felt to kick that ball. And I was like, ‘No, that’s it.'”
Kelly O’Hara, a two-time World Cup champion and Olympic gold medalist with Team USA, hosts the Just Women’s Sports podcast Naeher appeared on.