Alyssa Naeher was with the rest of the U.S. women’s national soccer team four weeks ago in Orlando, Fla., training for the SheBelieves Cup, one of the squad’s final tuneups for the Tokyo Olympics, when she first started to recognize the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak.
The extent to which it would leave the next few months of her life this much up in the air, though, was not as predictable.
Naeher, a Connecticut native who now lives in Chicago where she is the goalkeeper for the NWSL’s Chicago Red Stars, went from that Olympic preparation to having to abide Illinois’ stay-at-home order, with no clarity on when soccer will eventually resume. And with the IOC and Japan reaching an agreement this week to postpone the Olympics to 2021, Naeher must wait another year for a shot at bringing home gold with the red, white and blue.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed,” Naeher told The Courant in a phone interview. “Obviously this is something that we had just qualified for in February and we were gearing up for, and the next step was trying to make the final Olympic roster. And that’s something we’ve been training for and preparing for a very long time.
“But I think for me and a lot of my other teammates, it was the right thing to do, it was the right decision for the state that we are in in the world. And for me, I’m grateful for my health, and I’m grateful for the health of my family at the moment.”
Naeher, who attended Christian Heritage School in Trumbull, Conn., before playing four years at Penn State, is coming off the USWNT’s incredible 2019 World Cup run. Having emerged as the squad’s starting goalkeeper, she played a big role in helping the U.S. win its second straight World Cup title and fourth overall.
In tow with new head coach Vlatko Andonovski, the team had been on a roll ever since, most recently storming through the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying and the SheBelieves tournaments before everything was put on hold.
“This is normally a time for us when things are really ramping up in preseason mode and gearing up for the season to be starting in a few weeks,” said Naeher, who has been with Chicago since 2016. “Obviously to hit the pause button is a little bit is different for us.”
On March 12, a day after the NBA suspended its season when one of its players tested positive for coronavirus, U.S. Soccer canceled the USWNT’s mid-April friendlies against Australia and Brazil, and the NWSL canceled its preseason matches. The league currently has a training moratorium in place through April 5, delaying its initial April 18 start to the regular season. The IOC and Japan took a bit longer to postpone the Olympics despite growing pressure from the international athlete community, but Naeher wasn’t surprised by the decision.
Naeher was on the U.S. roster when the team lost to Sweden in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Olympics in Rio. When Tokyo eventually does hold the Games, the squad will look to earn the U.S. its fifth gold, and first since 2012. The U.S. could also become the first team to win the Olympics after winning the most recent World Cup.
“The Olympics are a special event. It’s something that athletes dream about and train for our whole lives,” Naeher said. “The fact that it’s postponed and not fully canceled is better, for sure. Hopefully by pushing it now to next summer, it can go on completely as planned and the fans and everybody else who loves sports can enjoy it and it can be a way to bring everybody back together.”
In the meantime, the stay-at-home order has pushed Naeher to get creative with indoor workouts, and she’ll only go outside to get in a walk or some fresh air. She checks in with her sisters, who live in Charlotte, N.C., and her parents, who are still in Connecticut, over FaceTime, and was luckily last able to see the latter when the USWNT played in New Jersey a few weeks ago. Naeher says she’s been leaning on her faith as she strives to accept all that is beyond her control and keep things in perspective.
“Whether you’re an athlete or a fan, sports are a cathartic experience to a lot of people, and I think it’s sad that that outlet is being taken from people,” Naeher said. “But there’s people losing their lives, there’s people losing their jobs, there’s people that are moving weddings, missing school, missing big life moments.
“This is affecting everybody in some form, one way or the other, and obviously the Olympics are part of that, which is disappointing. But I think in the grand scheme of things, it was the right decision and hopefully we can all keep coming together as a community, keep coming together as a country. And we are going to get through this. There is hope with this, and it’s just going to take some time.”
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