Having a good goalkeeper is an important tool in the NWSL toolbox. With the depth of the forwards in the league, having someone to prevent the very best from doing what they are great at is necessary.
Some teams go above and beyond just having a good goalkeeper and bring a really great one in.
A few teams though have done the work to not only have a great goalkeeper and a serviceable backup but have managed the rare feat of having two on the roster that can mind the net with a sense of mastery of the position that gives fans and coaches alike confidence.
Laura Harvey is no stranger to having great goalkeepers on her roster. Hope Solo and Haley Kopmeyer through 2014-2016 with Seattle Reign FC might stand as the single greatest, two punch the league has seen. But Solo is out of the league, Kopmeyer is in Orlando, and the Women’s World Cup is pulling the strings on a lot of rosters. With those shifts to the NWSL goalkeeping landscape, a new dynamic goalkeeping duo has emerged.
To put it bluntly, Nicole Barnhart and Abby Smith are the best goalkeeping duo the league has to offer in 2019. It’s a big claim in a league that has between 16 and 20 full-time goalkeeper spots. The concentration of talent at the position has to be a factor of frustration any new goalkeeper has to feel being drafted into the league.
When you’re talking about duos, it really comes down to three options. In Chicago, you have Alyssa Naeher and Emily Boyd. While Naeher is the presumptive USWNT number one going into the Women’s World Cup, Boyd has two matches in the league to her name. While Naeher brings the score up, overall they are out.
Houston presents a little more complexity. Jane Campbell has been in and out of USWNT camps while Bianca Henninger is a member of the Mexican women’s national team. Henninger has seemingly backed up half of the goalkeepers in the league over her years. While I would put them in the top half overall, they do not have the same level of stability that others manage to find. I’d put them in the top half of the league but just.
North Carolina offers the first compelling tandem when we’re going down an alphabetical list. Katelyn Rowland and Stephanie Labbé are both great goalkeepers. Both have proven in NWSL play they can get the job done, or mostly so, when needed. But Labbé hasn’t played in the NWSL in a season and never with North Carolina. And for a good part of the 2019 season, she is (likely, very likely) heading to France as part of the Canadian women’s national team. While they are a strong duo, the Women’s World Cup does stifle their impact a bit.
Orlando, Portland and Seattle present much the same issues as North Carolina. Ashlyn Harris and Hayley Kopmeyer are both very good in league play, but Harris is all but a lock for the USWNT roster. While Kopmeyer is as solid a number one as you might be able to find in the league, with Harris gone, whoever backs her up will be a solid step down. The same holds true for Adrianna Franch and Britt Eckerstrom in Portland as well as Lydia Williams and Michelle Betos in Seattle.
Sky Blue has a possible future starter for Canada once Kailem Sheridan can clean up a few aspects of her game. Didi Haracic is new to the team and just didn’t get the time in Washington to show if she is more than serviceable in the back. If Sheridan misses time with the Women’s World Cup, Sky Blue might be in even more trouble.
That brings us to Washington with Aubrey Bledsoe and Kelsey Wys. Bledsoe was one of the best in the league in 2018. Someone who a lot of fans wanted to see in the USWNT pool. Wys just didn’t get enough time, with only one game to show what she is really made of.
That brings us to Nicole Barnhart and Abby Smith. While anyone who has followed women’s soccer shouldn’t need an introduction to who Nicole Barnhart is, I will give you a brief rundown for the sake of making sure we’re all on the same page. She is the third most capped goalkeeper in the USWNT system after Hope Solo and Bri Scurry. She has two Olympic golds, a Women’s World Cup silver and two NWSL titles with FCKC to her name.
If there is a motto for Barnhart’s style of play, “Consistency is Queen” would be a strong contender. She is a pro’s pro.
At 25 to Barnhart’s 37, Abby Smith is in a different place in her career. While not immune to making a head scratching error from time to time, Smith has shown that when she is on her game, her name should be listed among the best in the league.
Both have some impressive stars on their side. Smith’s goals against average of 1.07 puts her between Naeher and Franch on the season, strong company to be sure. While Barnhart’s 0.69 puts her even with Lydia Williams, Smith and Barnhart were 4th and 8th in clean sheets, with Barnhart managing three of them in the five games she played.
Having Barnhart on the roster is as close to having a second goalkeeping coach on the roster as any modern NWSL team is going to get. When you talk about “play like you’ve been there before,” Barnhart has been there and can help Smith.
Harvey has a choice to make in 2019: Smith or Barnhart or a combination of both. Assuming Barnhart has paid for her yearly subscription to the fountain of youth, there is no bad choice to be had in Utah.