Alyssa Naeher might have been late to the party establishing herself as a US national team starting goalkeeper. But Naeher had long been preparing for the position, thanks to her Connecticut connections.
The 35-year-old, set to play in her second Women’s World Cup, developed under the guidance of Tony DiCicco, known for coaching the US team to the 1999 title, and also recognized among the country’s best goalkeeper instructors.
Long before becoming a coach, DiCicco played the position growing up in Wethersfield, Conn.; for Springfield College; in the ASL for the Connecticut Wildcats and Rhode Island Oceaneers; plus one appearance with the US national team. Along the way, he pioneered goalkeeper training in a camp initiated by former University of New Haven coach Joe Machnik in the late 1970s, working with hundreds of prospects, including several future professionals.
In 2002, a 14-year-old Naeher enrolled in the camp, not far from her Seymour, Conn., home. And the timing turned out to be fortunate as, five years later, DiCicco would take over as coach of the US U-20 team. Naeher played for DiCicco and helped the United States win the 2008 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Chile, taking the tournament Gold Glove as best goalkeeper, while playing alongside Alex Morgan. That set Naeher on a path to a senior team career, though she had to wait nearly a decade for Hope Solo to retire.
“I think the biggest thing with Tony, even for us back then as 19-20-year-old kids, he treated us like the senior team,” Naeher said. “He obviously had done it before back with the senior team. But he knew what the tournament entailed. He knew what it was like to have games every few days, he knew the rhythm. He understood when to give players days off, when to let them see family, because he’d experienced it. And he treated us like the senior team, and that was invaluable for us.”
Meanwhile, after starring at Penn State, Naeher was ready to begin her professional career. Again, DiCicco set the stage, bringing her to the Boston Breakers as a first-round draft choice in 2010. Naeher began the season as No. 3 goalkeeper, but after the Breakers got off to an 0-3-3 start, she was inserted in the lineup, the team rallying to make a playoff appearance.
At 21, Naeher found herself in goal behind national team veterans, from Kristine Lilly, Stephanie Cox, Amy LePeilbet, Leslie Osborne, and Lindsay Tarpley, to England’s Alex Scott and Kelly Smith, plus Amherst-born Scot Ifeoma Dieke.
“That helped me tremendously,” Naeher said during an interview before the US team traveled to New Zealand for the World Cup. “I was very fortunate as a young player to play behind that group of incredibly experienced and talented players. And they all took me under their wing and I learned a lot from each and every one of them.”
Lilly, from Wilton, Conn., had long been a role model for Naeher. And Naeher got a chance to see Lilly perform when her father, John, brought the family to the 1999 World Cup opener, the US team defeating Denmark, 3-0, at Giants Stadium.
“I remember the ‘99 World Cup as an 11-year-old kid,” Naeher said. “And for me to have the opportunity to see players like that and now have the realization that I’m that player is kind of a full circle moment, for sure.
“We drove down to the Meadowlands for the opening game, my parents, my sister, and I. And it was incredible, the first big sporting event we had been to. We did the whole thing, we tailgated and got the T-shirts, and played soccer in the parking lots with our teammates. And it was a really cool experience that kind of opened my eyes to like, I would love to do something like this someday. Kristine Lilly was from Connecticut, and for me get to play with her in Boston was even more special.”
Naeher did not make her US debut until 2014. Meanwhile, she established her pro career, winning the 2012 Frauen-Bundesliga title with Turbine Potsdam and capturing the NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year award in 2014 with the Breakers.
“To be a young professional and have a captain like Kristine Lilly [with the Breakers] and have the opportunity to play with a person of her caliber, I learned a lot from her,” Naeher said. “I learned how to be a leader, how to be a competitor. I learned what it took to show up every single day and work your butt off and, you know, those things have stayed with me my entire career.
“I had a lot to learn as a young goalkeeper and the biggest thing I realized, there’s no substitute for experience and to play games. And that’s part of the reason I went to Germany in the offseasons, to get as many games as I could. Because as much as you train, you have to be able to make the decisions in a game — make the wrong decisions and learn from them, make the right decisions and realize they worked out.”
DiCicco, who died in 2017, was an assistant coach when the US won the 1991 World Cup and the Olympic gold medal in 1996, and became the only US-born head coach to win a World Cup in 1999. Like many DiCicco-coached keepers, Naeher brings a combination of aggressiveness and poise to the position, relying on athleticism and instincts honed in more than 270 pro starts and 91 international matches.
“Everything I learned from Tony has stayed with me and it’s helped me get to this point in my career,” Naeher said. “Tony was a very hard coach, he had very high expectations, but he was also your biggest fan at the same time. He always supported his players and I always felt his support personally.
“I ran into Diane [DiCicco’s widow] in LA right before leaving for France [for the 2019 World Cup], and she gave me a big hug and said Tony would be so proud of you and excited. The opportunity to play in any World Cup is special, and to be here preparing for a third World Cup — to put into words what that feeling is, it’s incredible to be here and have this opportunity. And I hope to make the most of it.”
Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at email@example.com.