The Hardest Trip
Dec. 4, 2008
By Larry Watts
Alyssa Naeher says it was "one of the hardest things I've ever had to do in my life."
While her Penn State teammates were making plans for their rematch with Rutgers in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, the Nittany Lions' junior All-American keeper was packing her bags for a trip to Chile. Naeher is also the starting keeper for the U.S. team in the Under-20 World Cup.
"I was fortunate enough to have gone out with a win after the Big Ten Tournament," the Seymour, Conn. native says of the 2-1 victory over Minnesota in the title match. "Being happy and excited with my team kind of kept my mind off leaving a little bit, but going around to say goodbye to everyone was really hard. Especially the seniors, because I knew I would never get a chance to play with them again while wearing a Penn State uniform."
The Big Ten champions drew Rutgers, a team it had defeated 1-0 in double-overtime early in the season, in the opening round. Without Naeher, the Lions fell 2-1 in another double-overtime thriller. Penn State finished the season 16-8.
Coach Erica Walsh says it would be wrong to think her team's loss came because the Nittany Lions had a freshman (Krissy Tribbett) in goal.
"It wasn't like we were unprepared for Alyssa's absence," Walsh says. "Krissy had been in goal for us (shutout wins over Iowa and Illinois) while Alyssa went to training camp. That was a tough loss to Rutgers, but to be fair, both of those goals came off great shots."
Yet, not all Penn State fans saw it that way. Walsh says she received several critical e-mails.
"I just couldn't respond because they were such nonsense," the coach says. "I don't think people fully understand what a huge honor this is to play for your country. If you're the No. 1 keeper in the nation, why wouldn't you want to play for your country? In any other country, this wouldn't be a debate, but this is the way people think in the U.S.
"This (Naeher leaving) was never a discussion we needed to have. I encouraged her and respect her that much and she had the full blessing of her teammates."
Walsh, who just completed her second year in State College, certainly knows a little something about the international soccer arena. A former player on the U.S. Under-17 team, this past summer she was an assistant coach for the gold medal women's team in Beijing. She also served as an assistant for the U-19 squad, three years as head coach of the U-17 team and is now the head coach of the U-16 team.
"I guess I can't say I'm surprised coach Walsh has received some criticism about my departure, but everybody has their own opinions," Naeher says diplomatically. "But my guess is that those people who were critical have never been involved with any kind of opportunity to play and represent your country in a world event.
"Trust me, that (being loyal to my team) was one of the hardest parts about making my decision. Yet, at the same time, playing in the World Cup has been a goal of mine for a long time and it was not something I could pass up."
Naeher and her U.S. teammates have currently reached the semifinals in the World Cup. With the Nittany Lion junior in goal, the U.S. has pitched shutouts against Argentina, France and England (in the quarterfinals). Their 2-0 loss to the host country came with Naeher on the sidelines, since her team had already wrapped up a quarterfinal berth.
Naeher, who also competed with the U.S. National team at the U-16 and U-17 levels and was the top-ranked goalie in the nation before choosing Penn State, has seen her international travels take her to Cyprus, twice to Ireland, England, Chile and Mexico, and three times to Brazil.
"I really don't have a favorite," she says. "All of the trips I have been fortunate to go on have been a great experience and all were special in their own way. I've had my fair share of unique experiences, but I've tried to experience each culture and get the most out of it."
One of those unique experiences came on one of her trips to Brazil.
"Some of my teammates and I decided to do a little exploring," she says. "Somehow a herd of bulls came up behind us and blocked our exit. We wound up trapped in a jungle. We were a little worried, but it was kind of funny at the same time."
According to Walsh, Naeher's greatest growth in the past year has been her communication skills.
"That (communication) and improved kicking skills have made her the elite keeper she is now," her coach says. "She has always been great with her footwork and handling our alignments, but she really came out of her shell this year. She's always been such a humble and quiet competitor, but I never really heard her until I watched some of the telecasts on the Big Ten Network this year."
"Being loud and yelling never really has been part of my personality," Naeher says. "But a huge part of being a goalkeeper is being able to communicate a lot. It's been difficult because it's not really who I am, but I just felt on the field that's what my team needed from me a little bit more so I did the best I could."
But Naeher does manage to find some quiet time before each match, when she can sit down and listen to some music.
"I just like to kind of get in my own world a little bit," the 5-foot-9 keeper says. "I tend to just get really quiet and focus on the things I have to do in the game to be successful."
Naeher began playing soccer at age 5 and competitively at 10. She didn't make the transition to keeper until two years later.
"When I was little, I always thought the gloves and jerseys (worn by the keeper) were really cool," she says. "I always liked playing basketball, so I liked being able to use my hands. And I liked diving around."
Naeher tries not to think too far ahead, like to the 2012 Summer Games in London.
"The next step is probably the U-23 team and then, hopefully, getting a shot with the full team (for the Olympics)," she says. "I feel like anyone who can stay involved with the national teams will be able to put themselves in a good position for 2012, but it's still a long way off."
When Naeher returns to Penn State, the Nittany Lions are looking to make a big splash in the postseason next fall. Penn State also had three freshmen, who all took redshirts this year, involved in World Cup play at various levels.
"I think that just shows there are good things to come for Penn State," Naeher says. "Especially for those three freshmen, this (World Cup) is a great way to get critical playing experience so they can adjust to the college game more quickly than other freshmen.
"Penn State has always had a good history and I think this just shows that as a program we are continuing to grow and uphold that history."