PORTLAND, Ore. – Ninety minutes. Usually once a week. Sometimes twice. It’s the only thing that distinguishes a starting goalkeeper from their backup. In between, both players go through the same training, break down the same film, and when the team’s preparing for the next opponent, they both are part of teams’ seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 drills.
Before and after each game, the starter and backup occupy the same worlds. It’s only the 90 minutes between whistles that separate one goalkeeper from the other.
That may be why, to Britt Eckerstrom, the conversation feels off. She understands why the questions are being asked. Three weeks ago, she was a backup goalkeeper, but because of a knee injury to Portland Thorns FC’s starter, Adrianna Franch, Eckerstrom is now occupying a starting role. People want to ask her about it.
Beyond that 90 minutes, once a week, though, nothing’s changed in the 24-year-old’s world.
“Every game that I am here, not playing, there is that still that whole preparation for a game,” Eckerstrom said before the season, having just come back from a loan spell in Australia. “You don’t know what’s going to happen to the starting keeper, so I’m always ready to step in.
“And training is no different. I’m training as if I am going to play that week. It’s tough after games when you’re like, ‘Hey, I didn’t get in,’ but before every game? You’re ready to play.”
That mentality may explain why Eckerstrom’s always excelled when stepping into a starter’s role. The three games she played as a rookie, with the Western New York Flash in 2016, produced an NWSL Player of the Week honor. That offseason, she was traded to the Thorns, who played Franch in all 26 of their games last season.
This year, however, Eckerstrom has allowed only two goals in as many starts, producing a slightly lower goals against average than the team’s record for the entire season. It’s early, but in Franch’s absence, the Thorns have yet to miss a beat.
Strong mentality or not, it is still a strange situation. At least, it is from the outside. Backup goalkeepers have to come to work every day, put in the same time on the field, yet if a team’s season goes as planned, they’ll get the fewest rewards.
There’s no real way for a team to shift the formation to leverage their goalkeeper depth, and you rarely see the backup come on late in matches, for the sake of some extra minutes, as you would a field player. Unless there’s an active goalkeeper battle being resolved, the life of a backup is defined by two huge, rarely resolved what ifs: what if the No. 1 gets hurt; what If the No. 1 falls off?
Eckerstrom can’t dwell on those questions. Goalkeeper jobs are scarce, but seeing yourself as a backup guarantees you’ll say one. You’ll start competing like somebody who doesn’t want playing time. Even if there isn’t an active battle for your team’s starting job, for the sake of development, you have to at least challenge your own potential.
“I’m more competitive with myself and my own growth,” Eckerstrom shared, when talking about her career’s path. “It’s hard to be able to look at other people and say, ‘This is where they’re at, and this is where I should be at.’ That could spiral really quickly downward, so you try really not to do that.
“You try to focus on your own game. Every week, what are a couple of things that I can do better the next week, or even day to day?”
Working with Franch has helped she said, as has training with the Thorns’ goalkeeper coach, former FIFA World Player of the Year Nadine Angerer. With their help, Eckerstrom’s game has evolved, she says, even if that evolution has been beyond the public view.
“My style has changed,” she said. “I’m more explosive. Just gaining confidence from learning this new style, getting comfortable, getting to know the team, and being ready to step in wherever …”
“I’ve grown a ton as a goalie. Getting to work with A.D. and Nadine every day has been just the best opportunity in the best environment I can possibly be.”
The proof of that growth also came out of the public eye; at least, before her recent starts against the Washington Spirit and Utah Royals FC, the proof came out of Portland’s public eye. This offseason, Eckerstrom took part in what’s becoming an NWSL tradition, joining 34 other current league players in Australia for the 2017-2018 W-League season. There, she got her first professional starts since June 17, 2016, and her first extended run as a starter since leaving college.
“Getting to get the starts and get the minutes in Australia was really nice,” she said about her time with the Newcastle Jets. “I’m getting a lot of game experience in reading, moving, and then having those pressure situations, and having to be in control of a normal game flow and game management.”
Still, when again asked about the differences between No. 1’s life and a backup’s, her answers are the same. No matter the league, continent, or culture, the day-to-day of those roles doesn’t change, much. You do the same work.
Instead, the biggest difference between her lives in Portland and Newcastle came down to life off the field.
“I got to be immersed in this awesome, Australian lifestyle,” she remembers. “I got to live in Newcastle - a little, super relaxed surf town.
“My goalkeeper coach heads out to the surf every morning, 5 a.m., goes surfing, then comes to train us in the afternoon and is so stoked. You can tell when he has had a good surf day because he walks up and is like, ‘Aw, man. Caught some beauty rides,’ or something crazy like that. It’s not totally different, but it was really fun getting to be in a different culture.”
The answer fits a pattern, when it comes to digging on Eckerstrom’s life as a backup. “I don’t really need to adjust anything,” she says, repeatedly, to a question that keeps coming up in different forms. There must be some stark difference between the lives of starters and backups, the questions imply; something that touches on identity, or personal vision.
That’s just not the case. At least, it’s not with Eckerstrom. When she came to Portland, she didn’t see herself as a backup, and given the goals she has for herself, she doesn’t see herself as a backup, now. Whether a No. 1 or No. 2, her days would be the same: work as hard as you can; improve every day; be ready if your name’s in the lineup.
“I’m still training the same, going into the games with the same mindset,” Eckerstrom said. “I’m going to be ready, always, to jump in and lead back there.”
Which may explain why, over her first two starts with Portland, she’s been so successful. And whether that success continues, Eckerstrom’s process won’t change. Still 24, Eckerstrom’s got a long career ahead of her, one she can’t let come down to labels. Whether she starts or not, 90 minutes each week won’t define how Eckerstrom goes about her work.
“It’s more of a how can I keep improving …,” she feels. “Keep pushing myself to get better, and wherever that puts me on the weekend, you’ve just got to be happy with that, because you’ve put in your best effort.”