The U.S. Women's Soccer Team has reached the semifinals of the 2010 CONCACAF - the North and Central America, and Caribbean region's Women's World Cup Qualifying tournament. The Americans achieved this success with backup goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart, who is filling in for regular starting keeper Hope Solo as she rehabilitates her right shoulder following surgery in late September.
The perennial backup goalkeeper has posted three consecutive shutouts in the first round of the tournament in Cancun, Mexico - leading the Americans into the semifinals.
With Solo expected to be out for at least four months, Barnhart, the backup goalie at the 2007 World Cup and 2008 Beijing Olympics, was thrust into the starting position.
The 29-year-old has helped the U.S. team earn shutouts against Haiti, 5-0, Guatemala, 9-0, and Costa Rica, 4-0, in the tournament, so far.
Barhart's goalkeeping coach Paul Rogers says he knows the team is in good hands and that he has nothing but praise for her.
"Positionally, she's very solid. She's a calm presence. Obviously, you can see in training she doesn't miss a beat. Good set of hands, positionally one-on-on. Fantastic! Quality goalkeeper," said Rogers.
Known as "Barnie" by her teammates, Nicole Barnhart has played well when called upon to start. Last year, she started two matches for the United States and earned 1-0 shutouts in both. Barnhart attributes her success to training and mental preparation.
"I think it's pretty natural. I've always kind of come in with the same mentality of just giving it my all and training my best and trying to just improve everyday that I go out there and train," she said. "And I just think as long as I keep that mentality and go forward that I'll continue to improve and hopefully just kind of fall into that role as a starter naturally."
Barnhart was the starting goaltender for the 2010 Women's Professional Soccer, or WPS, league champions FC Goldpride [of California]. And she says she is thrilled to be the feature goalie on an American squad that looks to earn a berth for the 2011 Women's World Cup in Germany. For all of her years as a backup, Barnhart has prepared like the starter.
Her FC Goldpride and U.S. National teammate Rachel Buehler says great effort and dedication to the game have paid off for Barnhart, the WPS goalkeeper of the year.
"I think it's huge for Barnie. She's worked so hard. She's a phenomenal goalie. She does great every time she does gets an opportunity to play. And just playing with her in season, I'm always so impressed and feel so grateful to have her behind me," said Buehler.
Now Barnhart can help the U.S. earn a trip to the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup in Germany with a win against rival Mexico in the semifinals. This would be an opportunity that Nicole Barnhart says she does not take lightly.
"I've had a lot of different roles with the national team over the past couple years I've been in," Banrnhart said. "I've gone from playing in a few games to not making rosters, to not even being on the team, to being brought back in and being the third keeper for a World Cup, to getting some games and being the second keeper for the Olympics. So this is kind of a new role for me."
The U.S. Women's National Soccer team's semifinal against Mexico is set for Friday. The other semifinal that day matches Canada against Costa Rica. The winner of each semifinal will automatically earn a berth to the World Cup. The tournament's third-place finisher will face the fifth place team from Europe in a home-and-home and series for a final World Cup berth.
The CONCACAF championship game and third-place match is scheduled for Monday, also in Cancun.