Women's World Cup goalie challenge: To be great and become even greater

Not many goalies in this year's Women's World Cup have a more complete skill set than Chile's Christiane Endler. Julien Mattia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

LE HAVRE, France -- There was a moment during the group stages of the 2019 Women's World Cup when someone asked whether Chilean goalkeeper Christiane Endler, who'd just let in a trio of goals against the U.S., could be named Player of the Match.

With Endler's catlike reflexes and spectacular saves, that question had some foresight, as she was left holding the award in recognition of a truly remarkable performance. Hope Solo anointed her a "one-in-a-million" player despite the 3-0 setback early in the tournament.

Endler isn't the only standout goalie, however, and she certainly isn't the only one who has had a memorable game. England manager Phil Neville believes "the goalkeeping has been unbelievable" in France. With 18-year-old Nigerian Chiamaka Nnadozie, Endler and Argentina's veteran stopper Vanina Correa, goalkeepers have inspired and stunned in equal measure.

A recent clip posted on FIFA's YouTube account of the tournament's finest saves is ticking along nicely -- well into six figures.

But it's not a compete dream scenario for the goalkeepers here. In a World Cup in which grumbles over VAR, offsides and laws around penalties have taken center stage, goalies have a lot on their plate outside getting their hands on the ball.

This position is hardly straightforward. So what are the main challenges goalkeepers face in the short and long term? Here are four:

Challenge 1: How to be the complete package

If you were to create a perfect goalkeeper from this World Cup, you would perhaps look to the distribution skills of France's Sarah Bouhaddi, the shot stopping of Endler and the leadership of Germany's Almuth Schult. But ask players who have appeared in the past four or five tournaments and they all turn to the U.S. team's Hope Solo as someone who moved the position forward, alongside others such as Briana Scurry, Silke Rottenberg, Rachel Brown and Nadine Angerer.

Scurry, the 1999 U.S. World Cup-winning goalkeeper, said it takes a lot of to be the complete keeper.

"I think Alyssa Naeher has all the athletic attributes, the technical ability," Scurry said to ESPN.com before the tournament. "She is a good shot-stopper. She's great with her feet. She's great on crosses, all the things that a goalkeeper needs physically.

"What I'm not sure about is her decision-making, which is a tactical thing. And then also, her mentality. If she can't come up with the huge save, if the team comes out flat, for example, can she rise above, and will she be able to make one or two saves here and there so that the team can get their footing and then push up the field and get a goal?"

Solo, who won the World Cup in 2015 and was named the tournament's best goalkeeper, said there are other facets to success.

"To win a World Cup, you need a great goalkeeper -- but your goalkeeper also needs to be a great athlete," Solo told ESPN.com. "Goalkeeping is 90 percent kissing the defender's arses and 10 percent kicking their arses."

Evaluating her own evolution, Solo points to 2007, when she was one of the only goalkeepers at the time who had great footwork and athleticism. "In 2011, that became really important, the progression in my game was my distribution, the ability to play with my feet and to be confident with that -- to be able to ping it where I wanted it to go."

And there's the preparation and focus.

"I've always known that my organizational skills were above anyone and that wasn't always fun for my teammates," Solo said. "I was very detailed, constantly talking about positioning and not just on set pieces or the defense but the midfield as well."

Challenge 2: Finding the balance between risk and reward

Solo is largely commended for moving the goalie position forward. In the current World Cup, there is a penchant for playing out from the back, and that comes down to accurate distribution. Solo set the benchmark here, according to former USWNT and USMNT goalkeeping coach Phil Wheddon.

"It didn't matter what distance. Her distribution was natural, and that's obviously a major mark of the modern game," Wheddon said to ESPN.com. "That's something Hope possessed. Along with the shot stopping and the athleticism and everything else that she had, you've got something unique."

For those coaching the next generation, expect to see even greater distribution skills heading forward. This is what Kim Wyant -- head coach of NYU men's soccer, Hall of Famer and the USWNT's first goalkeeper in the team's inaugural match back in 1985 -- earmarks as one of her priorities when working with young goalkeepers.

"We want to make sure our goalkeepers are proficient with their feet because we want to be able to play through the goalkeeper; we want to be able to maintain possession out through the back, build through the goalkeeper and through the backs," Wyant said.

"My [playing] career was still alive in the mid-'90s when the W-League hit the scene, the USL W-League. That's when it was becoming more talked about how goalkeepers needed to be able to distribute with their feet, keep possession with their feet, and we needed to get better at that. If you look at young goalkeepers like Hope and Briana, they were already being schooled in that, they were already being coached to be better and to keep possession with their feet. I think, now, without a doubt, at all levels, goalkeepers must be proficient with their feet."

Veteran England goalkeeper Karen Bardsley also had to adjust her game to play the ball short more often than not. But it's been second nature for a number of years.

"I've been playing at [Manchester] City for five or six years now, and we want to build from the back, but we aren't going to take stupid risks, either. When Keira [Walsh, England midfielder] is getting marked by three people, she's probably not going to get on the ball that much.

"It's about managing the game and managing momentum. Of course, we want to build and play in nice positions, as that's what we've been trying to do all tournament."

Challenge 3: Coping with trial by VAR

VAR has thrown two new challenges at goalkeepers: interpreting when a player is active or passive in an attacking move and the unequivocal need to stay on their line during a penalty shot. The first aspect means a player in an attacking position can be a distraction through her mere presence in the box, but if she is deemed passive by VAR, she is not considered offside.

And then there's the second nuance, which was introduced by FIFA just six days before the tournament started (but amended since), that, if a goalkeeper does not have at least one foot on the goal line when a penalty is taken, then, if it is missed, the keeper will be yellow-carded and the penalty retaken.

You can imagine the outrage, teams' fortunes changing and the general frustration. The two highest-profile incidents were in Nigeria's match against France, when Wendie Renard missed a penalty, only to have another chance because Nnadozie was off her line. Then in Scotland's must-win match against Argentina, Scottish hearts were broken by a retaken penalty as Florencia Bonsegundo scored the second time in her attempt to make it 3-3 in the dying embers of the match.

It was a controversial move by FIFA to bring that law into this tournament, with its stakes so high.

"I understand this new penalty rule, but it seems ridiculously harsh on goalkeepers!" tweeted Manchester United goalkeeper Siobhan Chamberlain. "You have to have forward motion to stop you diving into the post. She was an inch off her line ... A penalty is already massively weighted in favour of the attacker! Do they need more?!?"

Solo said it "hurts the spirit of the game."

Bardsley was asked about her views on the new law and said, "It just seems cruel. And so pedantic." But for England's Neville, he was not about to tell his players to start pushing the boundaries with the new rule, simply telling them to "get on with it. Keepers have to deal with it [the new rule]." FIFA tweaked the rule mid-tournament to avoid goalkeepers being cautioned in penalty shootouts. But to date, this pesky new law did not affect Norway's shootout with Australia, and, on a positive note, we are still seeing some remarkable penalty stops, such as Hedvig Lindahl of Sweden's save against Canada's Janine Beckie.

Challenge 4: Continue to push the game's boundaries

There are challenges, no question. But people are thinking outside the box on how the sport should progress. Emma Hayes, the Chelsea manager, floated the idea of smaller goals for the women's game, pointing to how women's hurdles are shorter than men's. The suggestion sparked a heated response, including from Solo, who "took great offense."

"I know Emma Hayes really well, played under her at Chelsea," USWNT player Crystal Dunn said. "Those are obviously her opinions, and I personally don't agree with it. You guys have seen the Chilean goalkeeper do some incredible things against us. Dang it!

"For a goalkeeper to be able to compete at that level and save as many saves as she can against us, I think it's incredible, and that's just a testament that the goals are exactly the size they need to be, the pitch is the size that it needs to be."

Through the round of 16, we've had the exact same number of goals (126) as we did in 2015. But that doesn't tell the entire story. Headers are up (19% this year, 15% in 2015), right-footed shots are way down (52% in 2019, 59% in 2015) and more shots are coming from inside the box (62% in 2019, 55% in 2015).

Teams are being much more creative, shooting from closer and in more unique ways. Which means goaltenders need to adapt to the latest strategies.

So with so much going on, what about the next generation?

Bardsley is an advocate of mixed academies, having grown up in the U.S. and experienced that model at California State University.

"I trained alongside full-grown men at college and worked with some great male keepers," Bardsley said. "It helped me 100 percent with speed of play, speed of reactions and strength. The mindset they gave me was invaluable. I speak to girls who play football alongside lads -- they'll tell you that you almost have to earn the right to play with them. It's annoying that you have to do that, but once you've done it, the barriers are down." If the performances of Nnadozie are anything to go by, the next generation will challenge the pecking order of current greats. It's a healthy outlook and a sign of how the game continues to evolve and stick one in the eye of those doubters who still use lazy analysis when it comes to female goalkeepers.

"It's like everyone has been bagging on us for so long that we're just like, 'We will show you,'" Bardsley said. "It just goes to show how much the women's game has improved over the years. Outstanding goalkeepers, fantastic reaction saves."

But that doesn't mean the current goalkeepers will get complacent. Far from it. There are people chasing at their heels, looking to emulate their heroes and move the position forward. Even the best never achieve perfection.

"Goalkeeping is a position that you cannot perfectly play," Solo said. "There are always errors, things you can learn. You can't perfect the art, and that's what I loved, what got me into every match, watching film, turning up early, staying late ... trying to get that perfect game."