With just four months to go before the Women’s World Cup, the U.S. goalkeeper situation was already up in the air with starter Hope Solo’s 30-day suspension by U.S. Soccer after her recent incident in which her husband was charged with a DUI while driving her in a U.S. Soccer team van in Los Angeles.
So the timing of this news on Wednesday night raised some eyebrows: Paul Rogers, the U.S. goalkeepers coach since 2009, abruptly left his position with the team to take a job as the goalkeepers coach with the Houston Dynamo.
Ordinarily, GK coaches don’t make the news, but Rogers isn’t your ordinary goalkeepers coach. Over the years, the Englishman has worked under three different U.S. head coaches (Pia Sundhage, Tom Sermanni and Jill Ellis) and been responsible at various times for video analysis, scouting, player selection and set-piece preparation.
Rogers was Sermanni’s de facto first assistant, and Sundhage gave him complete charge of preparing the U.S. for penalty kick shootouts. He was also known for having a productive working relationship with Solo, arguably the world’s best keeper, who has played every minute of every U.S. World Cup and Olympic game going back to 2008.
One U.S. veteran player described Rogers’ departure to SI.com as a “shock.” But was there any connection between his leaving and the Solo situation? Did Rogers get fed up and leave? Did U.S. Soccer have some reason to show him the door?
Not at all, the principals say. U.S. Soccer sources said his departure had no connection to Solo’s suspension, and Rogers echoed that refrain in an interview.
“The opportunity [in Houston] came along, and you can’t choose the timing of when these opportunities come along,” he said. “For myself personally, I’ve been looking at the men’s game for a while … This opportunity with Houston came along with a fantastic franchise and coach [Owen Coyle] and a staff that’s just been put in place.”
“Had it come along after the World Cup, that would have suited all parties,” he continued. “Did I want to pull out [of the U.S. team] this close to a World Cup? No. I by no means wanted to leave U.S. Soccer this close to a World Cup, but you don’t get to choose these things.”
Rogers said he had turned down two different offers to become the goalkeepers coach for men’s teams in the second-tier English Championship since the Olympics. The Houston position came open suddenly on Sunday when former goalkeepers coach Phil Hughes had to pull out of the job for personal reasons, according to the Dynamo.
When asked if his leaving the USWNT was the result of his wanting to get away from the U.S. goalkeeping situation and Solo’s suspension, Rogers was clear in his response.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “I think that’s actually a bit of an insult on all the goalkeepers that that’s even brought up. This [job] with Houston came up on Sunday, and obviously that’s after the fact of what happened in camp [with Solo] … It’s nothing to do with Hope and has nothing to do with anything that’s gone on in the national team. This is all to do with what’s going on here in Houston and my wanting to be part of what’s going to be a fantastic year here in MLS.”
When it comes down to it, though, Rogers’ departure comes at a bad time for the national team with the World Cup just months away and the U.S. goalkeeper position in flux. With Solo suspended, the three goalkeepers announced on the squad for upcoming friendlies at England and France are Nicole Barnhart, Ashlyn Harris and Alyssa Naeher.
“It is strange that it happened at this time,” said Tony DiCicco, the former U.S. coach who now works as a TV analyst. “It further puts the whole goalkeeping question of the USA in a little bit more unstable situation. You have one goalkeeper, Barnhart, who I think is their best goalkeeper [other than Solo], but she has very bad knees and sometimes she can’t train.”
“Then you’ve got two other goalkeepers with a total of five caps with Naeher and Harris,” he added. “None of those three have played in a World Cup or Olympics game. So it definitely creates some instability in the position.”
Without Solo or the injured captain Christie Rampone available, the upcoming games against England and France, which both feature several attacking threats, will have plenty of storylines, not least for the U.S. defense.
Then there’s the challenge for Ellis, who herself took the U.S. job with just a year to prepare for the World Cup. Now she has to hire a new goalkeepers coach with the clock ticking down to kickoff in Canada.
“Jill’s gotta get this right, quite honestly,” said DiCicco. “Because if a new goalkeepers coach comes in and wants to make his mark and starts changing things, it may impact goalkeeper confidence. The expression I use is paralysis by analysis. If a new coach comes in and wants to demonstrate their wealth of knowledge, it could start to confuse the goalkeepers a bit.”