From the start of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, the quality of goalkeeping has been off the charts.
The early games in the group stage produced a highlight reel of spectacular, acrobatic, eye-popping stops, featuring (just to name a few) England’s Mary Earps, Haiti’s Kerly Théus, Jamaica’s Rebecca Spencer, Nigeria’s Chiamaka Nnadozie, Panama’s Yenith Bailey and the Philippines’ Olivia Davies-McDaniel.
“I’ve seen a number of phenomenal saves so far from every goalkeeper that’s played,” United States starting goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher told the mixed zone following the Americans’ 1-1 tie with the Netherlands on Wednesday.
As the backstop for the title favorites and two-time defending champs, Naeher has been less busy than just about any keeper so far. Through two matches, the 35-year-old — whose penalty save of England’s Steph Houghton in extra time of the 2019 semis was one of the key moments of the USWNT repeating — has officially faced just one shot on goal: Dutch forward Jill Roord’s goal.
But for almost every other team, the goalkeeping has been front and center. The statistics prove as much.
Through Friday’s match between Argentina and South Africa, just past the halfway point of the first round, 23 clean sheets had been posted compared to just 25 during the entire group stage in four years ago in France.
There were also three scoreless games, most notably between Jamaica and France, in which Spencer made five saves against Les Bleus.
Through the first half of the first round, keepers were preventing 74% of all on-target attempts, up from 70% in France and 65% at the 2015 competition in Canada.
The improvement is no accident.
“People are now understanding that if you have a good goalkeeper, anything is possible — your keeper can keep you in a game,” said former Canada netminder Karina LeBlanc, a veteran of five World Cups who is working as an analyst for FOX Sports this summer in Sydney.
“There’s increased investment in the position now, coaching education programs for goalkeeper coaches. Even FIFA has a goalkeeping analysis that they’re focusing on here at the World Cup. It’s all part of it.”
The growth of the club game has played a major role, too.
A decade ago, the National Women’s Soccer League was just a year old. Few teams then had dedicated goalkeeper coaches.
“When I played, one time we had an equipment coach as our goalkeeper coach,” said LeBlanc, who is also the general manager of the NWSL champion Portland Thorns. “Now these are full-time positions.”
It has been the same story in Europe, where the popularity of women’s club soccer has exploded in recent years. More money for keeper training has followed there, too.
“The leagues around the world are getting better and better,” said Naeher, who plays for the NWSL’s Chicago Red Stars. “Every goalkeeper is getting to grow and evolve and see high-level opponents week in and week out.”
And not just in games.
“Even when you’re facing your own teammates in training every day, you’re getting better because the quality is just very high,” Naeher added. “Definitely now you’re seeing the results of that.”
The huge stakes and increased prize money at this Women’s World Cup have moved national teams to put more emphasis on making sure their keepers are as prepared as possible. The increased exposure of the women’s club game means there’s a lot more data for countries’ keeper coaches to pore through. It has made a difference. Only four of the first eight penalty kicks taken at Australia-New Zealand 2023 were converted by the takers. Three of those were saved.
In Nigeria’s first match, Nnadozie pawed away a 12-yard try by Canada’s Christine Sinclair — the top scorer, men’s or women’s, in the history of international soccer. Costa Rica’s Daniela Solera thwarted Spain’s all-time goals leader Jennifer Hermoso. Vietnam’s Tran Thi Kim Thanh stoned U.S. star Alex Morgan in the Americans’ opening 3-0 win.
“Anyone facing Alex Morgan, for example, is definitely going to know how many times she’s shot to the right and how many times she’s gone left,” LeBlanc said. “Goalkeeper coaches are studying the shooters they’re up against. They’re studying everything.”
The athleticism of keepers has also increased. Shots into the top corners used to be virtually unstoppable in the women’s game, LeBlanc said; that clearly hasn’t been the case this month.
The position has become more attractive to rangier, more powerful youngsters in part because of the past heroics of now retired World Cup legends such as Brianna Scurry and Hope Solo.
Being a keeper has become significantly cooler. More little girls want to be in goal than ever before. And once they’re in the so-called “goalkeepers union,” the training they now receive is specialized and top-notch.
“When Mary Earps made that save against Haiti, she has probably done that thousands of times in practice,” LeBlanc said. “With the Thorns, our goalkeepers will train that block position all the time. We didn’t do that kind of save back when I played. That’s not random. They do have to train for that.”
This new generation of keepers are more well-rounded soccer players today, too. Both on the men’s and women’s side of the sport, there has been a huge emphasis on building possession from back to front over the last decade.
Keepers don’t simply punt the ball as far as they can as often anymore. More and more, they are expected to be able to pass as well as they can turn aside shots.
“It used to be the goalkeeper was the last line of defense, but now it’s the first line of offense,” LeBlanc said. “Goalkeepers are no longer just training short-stopping. You see keepers now, they’re a key part of breaking a high press.”
“I think it makes it fun. It makes it exciting,” added Naeher of how her position has changed even since her first World Cup eight years ago. “It’s always a new challenge to continue to evolve with the game.”
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