There comes a time when a veteran goalkeeper becomes a backup goalkeeper and watches from the sideline as a young goalkeeper gets the experience, even if that backup goalkeeper has the following résumé:
- 2013 NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year
- Two-time Olympic gold medalist
- Back-to-back NWSL Champion
- 108 NWSL appearances
- 54 international caps with the U.S. Women’s National Team
- 358 career saves in the league
- Up until 2017, held the NWSL record for most clean-sheets with ten consecutive shutout games she set in 2013
Nicole Barnhart began the 2018 season working her way back to fitness after ankle surgery in the off-season. As a result, Abby Smith, who had been acquired via the Boston Breakers Dispersal Draft in February, was the obvious choice as the starting goalkeeper. It wasn’t until June 2 when Smith was away on international duty with the U.S. Women’s National Team that Barnhart made her debut for Utah Royals FC against Sky Blue FC.
In New Jersey that evening, Utah took the lead in the third minute thanks to Diana Matheson, who scored by volleying the ball into the goal within the six-yard box. The lead was short-lived. Seven minutes later, Sky Blue FC was within Utah’s final third, a test for Barnhart in her first start since September 2017. Barnhart was unable to stop Sky Blue’s tying goal. Barnhart still made two key saves in that game, showing why she’s still one of the best goalkeepers in the history of the NWSL.
But the start in New Jersey would not win Barnhart the starting spot, despite all of her experience and accolades. When Smith returned, it was clear that she was Utah’s number one goalkeeper. Unfortunately, Smith suffered a concussion in Utah’s 2-1 loss to Orlando on July 14, and she was subbed out in the 72nd minute, allowing Barnhart the final 18 minutes of the game.
With Smith sidelined, Barnhart earned another start. This time, against league leaders the North Carolina Courage, finishing with four saves. Again, Barnhart proved why she is still a top goalkeeper in the league and solidified that she should continue as the starter for the remainder of the season.
She seemed to have convinced Laura Harvey and started the next two games against Houston and Washington. Smith returned as a starter, however, in the game against Seattle Reign FC on August 11, but Utah lost 1-0, and Barnhart finished the rest of the season as Utah’s #1 goalkeeper.
In 8 games, Barnhart finished with 3 clean sheets, 17 saves, and a 79.2% saves percentage. She now has 375 saves in the NWSL, the most in the league.
Barnhart is expected to return to Utah for the 2019 season as the club exercised a contract option on her contract, setting up a potential goalkeeper battle for the starting spot between her and Abby Smith.