There isn’t a soccer player who doesn’t dream of notching the game-winning goal—it’s only natural to want the glory of scoring, second-year Washington Spirit goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe said. She would know; as a young soccer player Bledsoe was so good at scoring that her dad, who also served as her recreational league coach, moved her back into goal so she wouldn’t score too much. And honestly, Bledsoe said, she didn’t love it—at first.
“I was just kind of good at it,” said Bledsoe, who in August was named to the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) Team of the Month for the third time in 2019. “I was good with my hands—I loved basketball as well—so I just kept playing (goalie) because I was good and could help the team.”
But it wasn’t long before the 27-year-old Cincinnati native, who holds all-time program records for Wake Forest University women’s soccer in single-season and career shutouts (14 in 2011, 33 overall) and career goals against average (0.91), began to see the true value in and cherish her role.
Goalkeeping has evolved arguably more than any other position on the soccer field since Bledsoe was a kid and the goal was where most coaches hid their slowest or least athletic player. These days goalies have to be much more than guardians of the net. In fact, while it’s the most flashy part of their job and what most people think about when it comes to goalkeeping, shot stopping is only a small part of the position.
In addition to their knack for making those incredible reflexive and acrobatic saves that get the crowd on its feet, the best goalies—and Bledsoe has proven herself to be one of the NWSL’s elite—serve as field generals. They have a commanding presence and are constantly communicating with their teammates ahead of them, keeping the backline organized and making sure everyone on the field is in the best position for success. The most effective goalkeepers are proactive, can make split-second decisions under pressure and possess the mental stamina needed to endure the inevitable momentum shifts in each game. Bledsoe could go 89 minutes without touching the ball and be ready to launch her body to make a save in the 90th. Modern-day goalkeepers also play a major role in initiating their team’s attack, and therefore need to be able to handle and distribute the ball effectively.
Part of Bledsoe’s rise to the top has been her fearlessness and willingness to take charge in the penalty box, rather than act reactively, she said. In 2019, during which she’s played every minute of every game, the 5-foot-8 Bledsoe is tied for first in the league with 80 saves and second in the league with eight clean sheets. She also boasts one of the league’s best goals against average (1.14). But while Bledsoe appreciates the accolades she’s received this season, which include four NWSL Save of the Week and two NWSL Player of the Week awards, she said her success is a reflection of the team as a whole, especially the defenders ahead of her.
“I think of myself as the conductor of an orchestra,” Bledsoe said. “I see everything and watch it flow together. (Being a goalkeeper) requires a lot. Physically, you have to be one of the most fit and tactically you have to know the roles of every position. I’ve learned a lot mentally this year; you have to be able to bounce back from things really quickly. You can’t make any judgements in the game, you just have to try and stay in that flow state.”
Giving up a goal is heartbreaking—it’s crushing to have to go pick the ball up from the back of the net. But the strongest keepers are competitive enough not to like that and disciplined enough to get over it immediately so they can keep on doing their job, said 20th-year Quince Orchard High School girls’ soccer coach Peg Keiller, a former NCAA Division I and semi-professional goalkeeper herself.
It’s Bledsoe’s mental fortitude and tenacity that Quince Orchard forward-turned-goalkeeper Paige McNeal said she admires most. The Cougars’ leading scorer a year ago, McNeal stepped into goal this fall when starter Katie Orr was sidelined for two months on opening day with mononucleosis. Through Sept. 30, McNeal has recorded three shutouts in helping two-time state champion Quince Orchard to a 4-1 record. Though she might not train every day as a goalkeeper, Keiller said McNeal’s instincts, competitiveness and ability to solidify the Cougars’ defense through her soccer IQ and skills as a vocal leader have been vital to keeping Quince Orchard in contention for a second region title in three years.
“I’ve watched a bunch of (Bledsoe’s) highlights on Twitter and it’s really cool to be able to go watch a goalkeeper (of that caliber) in this area,” McNeal said. “She reminds me that I need to be fearless.”
As the NWSL, now the longest standing women’s professional soccer league in the United States, continues to grow, more and more girls will hopefully start to view playing professional soccer as a viable career aspiration, Keiller said. The opportunity to go see Bledsoe “in our backyard” should be quite encouraging for young goalkeepers, Keiller added. And Bledsoe doesn’t take her position as a role model lightly. Bledsoe, as is the entire Washington Spirit team and most of the NWSL, is extremely accessible and said she loves interacting with fans at games and on social media.
“I still wake up in the morning and pinch myself,” Bledsoe said. “The fact I would be able to do this for a job wasn’t a vision in my mind because all the previous leagues had folded. I hope that by watching me (young girls) might be able to see themselves doing what I do, in the future. Rather than look at a male goalkeeper they can be like, ‘I want to be like Aubrey Bledsoe.’”