22717_isi_harrisashlyn_uswntbs022517104 Brad Smith/isiphotos.com
U.S. Women's National Team

Ashlyn Harris Says Yanks Eager for SheBelieves Cup

After a long stretch of games against lesser competition, the U.S. women's national team will face three Top Ten teams in two weeks—a welcome change of pace for a squad in transition.
BY John D. Halloran Posted
February 27, 2017
9:05 AM

AS THE UNITED STATES women's national team continues the long process of reshaping its roster and tactics ahead of the 2019 World Cup, one of the more prominent questions facing the team is who will become the squad’s No. 1 goalkeeper.

Since the Olympics last summer, head coach Jill Ellis has rotated Ashlyn Harris and Alyssa Naeher in the net, giving each three starts in the six matches played last fall. However, the U.S. won those matches by a combined score of 34-3 and none of the opponents could manage to put the American defense or goalkeepers under any sustained pressure.

Recently stating that she still wants to see her keepers "in the pressure-cooker," Ellis should have no problem seeing what Harris and Naeher can do against top-notch competition over the next two weeks. Playing in the SheBelieves Cup, the Americans will face No. 2 Germany, No. 3 France, and No. 5 England in a seven-day span, starting with Die Nationalelf in Chester, Pa., on March 1 (7pm ET, FoxSports1).

Speaking to American Soccer Now ahead of the tournament, Harris explained her approach to the competition for the starting role.

“Alyssa and I are two very different goalkeepers and depending on what [the coaches] want and what opponent we’re playing, it’s probably going to change who they’re going to pick,” she said. “Those things are completely out of my control. I can make it very difficult for them and that’s what we’ve both been doing and that’s a credit to both of us.

“We’re both great goalkeepers, but we’re very different. Sometimes it comes down to personal preference of what Jill wants and that I can’t control, so I don’t let that eat me up at night.”

Since bowing out of the Olympics last August, no opponent has really challenged the U.S., but the SheBelieves Cup provides the team with an opportunity to match up against some of the world’s best. The Americans will also head to Europe this summer for a pair of matches and there are rumors of games against Brazil and Japan later in the year.

Harris is looking forward to the upcoming competition and thinks these matches will be key to developing the team going forward.

“How many opportunities can you get to play Germany, England, and France in the span of a week?” Harris asked. “This is about as good as a tournament gets. I consider this a very big tournament. There are going to be big crowds and we’re going to big stadiums.”

“Jill is making sure that she’s putting us in the best environment to grow and that’s why you hear about us going to Europe this year,” she added. “We need to play in European environments where it’s not on our home turf and it’s not home fans and we need to make this team a little uncomfortable. That’s where we can grow the most.”

This fall, the U.S.’ shifted to a three-back defense, presenting an additional challenge for the team. While Harris remained coy about whether the Americans would continue to use the new-fangled backline in the SheBelieves Cup, she did admit the formation presents a new set of tests for the goalkeepers.

“Now we have to play a little bit more aggressive off our line. We have to be really good with our feet. [The coaches] want to possess out of back,” explained the Florida native. “They want us to be an engine back there, keep the ball and play well with our feet and know when to go short and when to go long, and go long with a purpose.

“When you watch the highest level of the men’s teams, you see these goalkeepers who are just unbelievable with their feet and they’re actually becoming playmakers. I know that’s what our coaches want and that’s what we’re trying to focus on in training.”

In October, Ellis began radically reshuffling the U.S. roster, dropping some veterans and de-emphasizing others, while calling up and capping a bevy of young up-and-comers. Harris pointed out, however, that it’s just part of the natural progression of a team.

“These things happen. This is part of players getting older, there’s turnover,” said the University of North Carolina alumna. “It’s part of the evolution of the game—just understanding we have a lot of players who don’t have the experience and we have to bring them up and bring them up quickly and make them feel comfortable and make them feel confident. And those have been our priorities.

“We compete every single day and we work really hard together, but we are also pulling each other along to catch those players up who don’t have the international experience that some of us have.”

Harris stressed that the SheBelieves Cup offers a unique opportunity to test these young players, an experience not available in lopsided wins against Switzerland and Romania last fall.

“There are a lot of players on this team who really haven’t played against good quality, top-rated teams in front of big crowds,” she said. “Just getting that type of experience, getting to feel that pressure and having to get results, it’s so valuable.”

“I’m really looking forward to seeing some of these young players shine,” she later added.

Outside of the national team, Harris plays her club soccer for the Orlando Pride, which will play in a brand-new stadium in 2017. She spoke glowingly about her club and the growth of the National Women’s Soccer League in the past few years.

“If you see the growth and see the MLS teams chomping at the bit to get a women’s team because they believe in it—it’s so nice. It’s a good feeling,” confessed Harris.

“[Orlando] is the most professional environment I’ve ever played in—and I’ve played in the Bundesliga, I’ve played in Sweden. Nothing compares to where I am at Orlando City Soccer Club. To be able to have that is so refreshing. I just have to show up and I just have to do my job and I just have to perform and not [do] everything else—not have double duty doing laundry, and renting a van, and driving a van.”

Harris also believes the growing professionalism of the NWSL will begin to attract more internationals to U.S. shores.

“The league has grown so much. It’s so professional to see where it’s come after a few years. This is just a great step forward for us and I think it’s going to bring a lot of international talent in these next few years,” she said. “They’re going to see these MLS teams come in, see how professional it is and people are going to want to be here.”

However, some fans are concerned about the recent trend of American players leaving the NWSL and opting to head overseas, including U.S. internationals Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, and Crystal Dunn. Harris, however, views those moves in a positive light.

“When you think of the Champions League, that’s the highest stage, the highest platform,” said the netminder. “You’re talking about the best players in the world. They’re hungry, they’re not complacent. They want to do it all. I know Alex and Carli and Crystal and a lot of these other players, that’s their dream—to play in Champions League.”

“A lot of us went there when we were younger and got the experience and played in the Champions League and it’s unbelievable,” she added. “I’m happy that they get to do those things because I know it’s important to them and what they want for their career.”

For her part, Harris is excited about the Pride’s chances in 2017.

“I’m looking forward to being one of the top-of-the-table teams. There’s no excuse to not be,” she said.

“I’m expecting this team to do well and I’m going to make sure I do whatever I can to get this team in the playoffs and, hopefully, win a championship. That’s our ultimate goal."

John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

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