Emily Alvarado was happy to speak about goalkeeping, for as long as possible. “It’s really cool actually, I never really thought about how a lot of people still don’t know what the position entails.” At 24 years old, Alvarado may not have the experience that more well-known goalkeepers do but her understanding of what it takes to play at the professional level speaks to how much she’s grown since her collegiate days. “Goalkeepers have the best mental strength of anyone on the team,” Alvarado states with a laugh. “We have nerves of steel!.”
Those ‘nerves of steel’ have been honed throughout her career so far. Emily Alvarado started off in the academy system in Texas but didn’t start playing there until she was in her freshman year of high school because El Paso, her hometown, didn’t have any major clubs for her to play with. She instead, travelled to Houston and played with a club team there until she ended up playing for Texas Christian University (TCU) for four years. After her collegiate career ended last May, she then moved to France to play with Stade de Reims in the Division 1 Féminine.
“I always wanted to play my professional soccer overseas,” Alvarado says as we discuss her decision to play in France. “ I didn’t know which country I would end up in but I was happy to go anywhere. The opportunity came to play with Reims and I took it. I wanted to come over here to improve my skills as a goalkeeper and grow as a person.”
Her development as goalkeeper started at an early age. Alvarado’s biggest idols growing up were Gianluca Buffon and Iker Casillas. Their classic goalkeeping style, their ability to stay calm, to stay collected and their positioning drew Alvarado’s attention to them. Edwin van der Sar, Oliver Khan and Peter Schmeichel were also key figures for Emily Alvarado as she looked to model her game similarly to theirs. “They were super aggressive, made huge saves and mixed the same styles that Buffon and Casillas exhibited.” Alvarado notes. “All those goalkeepers are different so it was fun to look at their personalities on the pitch and pick and choose what to add to my game.”
Her style evolved due to her goalkeeping coaches as well. One of her very first goalkeeper coaches, Jorge Muniz in El Paso, taught her a typically Latin American style of goalkeeping. “Big saves, explosive jumps, extravagant goalkeeping, making the save and doing a little twist as you get up,” Alvarado notes wryly as she reminisces, "That definitely inspired me to be a more explosive goalkeeper myself, one who makes big saves. Not a showboat as such, but someone who always goes for it.”
Muniz’ style was then refined by Tom Serratore, the goalkeeping coach at TCU for Alvarado. With him, she learned how to break down the position more, including how to work on small technical things, the small steps you need to take to position yourself correctly, handling, you name it. All the things that most goalkeepers learn that Alvarado didn’t learn as a child. “He really got down to the basics and really honed down on them,” she states. “He made me better and more focused. Both of those styles became what I am as a goalkeeper now.”
Serratore was also at the heart of giving Alvarado the chance to wear her favourite kit to date. “One year [at TCU] the football team who usually wear purple and white, got this cool purple and grey jersey with a red trim,” she starts. “Everyone loved it and I remember talking to Tom, and I was like ‘that would be sick if we got a uniform like that for soccer’. He surprised us one year with it, all black with purple numbers and red trim. At first, when he brought them out, I thought only the field players would get it since goalkeepers don’t usually wear the same kit as them but he was like ‘no, I got it for the goalkeepers as well!’. We would alternate it so whenever the field players didn’t wear it, the goalkeepers would.” That all-black palette seems to be a popular choice for goalkeepers and Alvarado seems to be in favour of it too. “It’s just clean, you feel cool and you feel kinda badass in it!” she exclaims.
Moving to France evolved Emily Alvarado’s style even more. Having to come to a new country, learn a new language and also learn the style that her new team preferred were all things she had to incorporate in a short period of time. At the same time, Alvarado was also featuring with the Mexican senior national team, another style she had to learn and incorporate into her own style. “With the national team, it’s very possession-orientated,” Alvarado explains. “We play out the back, we don’t do a lot of long balls, I have to play a lot of short passes and make sure I’m available to receive a pass as well.” That was different from what she had learned to play as with TCU. In the collegiate system, which features faster forward and a more aggressive game play, Alvarado had to be more aware and to be prepared to come off her line quickly but it didn’t require her to be as technical. “We played less out from the back and didn’t keep the ball as much,” Alvarado continued. “It was a more straightforward style of soccer.”
Then she moved to France and had to adapt to something different again with Reims. “It’s a mix of the two here because the league is so competitive,” she says. “The players are very good and very quick so you have to be good on the ball, smart and make good decisions about your positioning.” It took a little time for it to come together for Alvarado but she’s now able to combine everything in her own game due to all of these different experiences.
Any goalkeeper who plays professionally will tell you how key getting the fundamentals right is. Shot stopping, positioning and handling are the basics but organisation and communication are where a goalkeeper truly separates themselves from back up to starter. “College helped me take my biggest steps in those,” Alvarado explains. “Being able to read plays, reading where the forward is going and what pass they can make, anticipating what they will do, all of that.” The organisation and communication aspects come into play here because the better you read the game as a goalkeeper, the more of a “coach” you can be for the rest of your teammates. Goalkeepers have the unique viewpoint of being able to see the entire pitch due to their position at the back so the more you can anticipate what an opponent will do, the better you can communicate to those around you how to prevent the other team from scoring.
Alvarado does most of her communication with her backline and the holding midfielders, for club and country. “I feel like trying to communicate with the attacking players, my voice gets drowned out so I tend to focus on the backline more and make sure the backline is in the right position even when we’re attacking.” The young goalkeeper also notes that she tends to focus on her backline and make sure that no matter what happens, the backline isn’t overloaded by their opponents because they’re all matched up correctly, partially due to her direction.
This communication doesn’t just happen with a click of her fingers. Training sessions every week with her team, with the coaches, help goalkeepers not only improve themselves but also develop that understanding with their teammates throughout a season. “I work on my footwork and passing in almost every session with my team,” Alvarado says. “It’s so important and such a fundamental part of our game. We then develop an understanding with each other through those sessions that we can then use on game day.” Even with the national team, the more the team talks to each other, trains with each other, the better. “Our team [Mexico] prides itself in having a lot of possession of the ball and taking care of it so they ask me to be comfortable on the ball and being comfortable with playing out from the back under pressure.”
Mónica Vergara, Mexico’s head coach, encourages constant communication within the team, Alvarado notes. “She wants us to always talk about soccer, even after practice. Whether it’s at lunch or at dinner, we toss out different ideas and try to mesh how we play with our clubs with how we play as a national team.”
Playing with the same players she came up with at the youth level helps Alvarado immensely with that as well. As all of them have played together for so long, she understands what they like, what they don’t like and how they play. For a national team set up, the faster you can build the chemistry, the better. With a team that’s constantly improving and still trying to be at the same level as their biggest rival, the United States, that level of familiarity helps Emily Alvarado every time she joins up with the Mexican national team.
We switch gears a little to talk about positioning and how scrutinised a goalkeeper’s positioning is, even though those discussing it may not know how to interpret what they are seeing. “We make a million decisions in seconds or try to make sure we’re cutting down the right angles,” Alvarado states. “What a lot of people don’t realise is that we don’t have the advantage in those situations. We don’t know what a forward is going to do, we don’t know what they’re thinking so everything they end up doing, we have to adapt to.”
It’s something we tend to forget when judging a goalkeeper’s performance, even I’m guilty of it. The way a goalkeeper makes their decision about what to do in a split second isn’t an exact science. They have to wait and then make a decision based on the decisions of what other people do. They won’t always get it right but when they do get it right, we should highlight that more than when they get it wrong.
“I think what helps with making sure those decisions are right more times than not, is that when you make a decision, you just have to go with it.” Alvarado muses. “The times I’ve been caught out and made mistakes have been the times I’ve second guessed myself.” So you should never hesitate, I ask Alvarado? “I think so,” she responds. “There’s been times when I’ve made a decision which wasn’t the right one but I still went for it. It puts pressure on my opponents and it also helps my teammate to react and adapt because I’ve made a decision.” In the end, Alvarado believes that it’s better to make a decision, correctly or incorrectly, than making no decision at all. If it doesn’t work out, a goalkeeper can always work on it and reassess it during film breakdowns for the future but during a game, going with whatever decision you make and what your training has taught you to do tends to work out well for a goalkeeper.
Those decisions are also aided by working on game scenarios in training. Alvarado and her teammates at Reims work on them regularly in small-sided games, repeatedly working on any possible situation that could come up during a game. “It takes a lot of time honestly,” she laughs, “but it’s a huge part of soccer that people don’t always think about. I struggled with it a little in the beginning because of the language and trying to figure out what my teammates wanted. Little by little we started to figure it out and it got easier. That repetition helped the most.”
As most people know, that repetition is harder to replicate with a national team because most teams can’t meet up for long periods of time to replicate scenarios constantly the same way a club team can. However, that doesn’t phase Alvarado. Even when she earned her first senior cap in 2019 against the USWNT, she may have been nervous but she was excited to be with the national team as well. “It’s the biggest honour I could ever ask for [playing with Mexico],” she says. “I’m always nervous for every game I play in but I’ve been working towards this for a long time, even when I was with the youth national teams so when I got my first cap, when I play for the national team, it feels like a culmination of so many years of hard work.”
Her favourite save to date happened with the national team as well, albeit with the U17s. During World Cup qualifying in 2013, Mexico and the US faced each other in the semi-finals and after the match ended in a 1-1 draw, it went to penalties. “I saved the first one but we needed more than that to make the final. It came down to the fourth kick, I saved that one, punched our ticket to the World Cup and knocked the US out of qualifying for the World Cup,” she finishes with a smirk. “That was one of the most significant saves I’ve ever made and I was freaking out after we won but yeah, nothing tops that one yet.”
As we segued into some lighter questions, I asked Alvarado which player she least likes playing against and she was very up front about her choice. She didn’t mind stating that Catarina Macario was someone she didn’t like coming up against. “Girl’s just good!” she states with a laugh. “She’s extremely smart and lethal with her finishing. She’s an all around fantastic player and still young so having faced her with the US and with Olympique Lyonnais, I’d say she’s the one I don’t like coming up against.”
I also asked Emily Alvarado who she felt were some of the best defenders she’s ever played with. She named four; Kenti Robles, Rebeca Bernal, Océane Deslandes and Brandy Peterson. “Kenti’s super solid, super intense and makes you want to work hard,” she explains. “She makes you want to go to war and she’s a fantastic captain. She’s also played with a lot of big teams so her experience counts for a lot.” Bernal, Alvarado’s second choice, is someone that she’s played with for a long time, which is why she selected her as well. “She’s been one of my center backs since we were 14,” she says. “I feel comfortable with her back there and I can always lean on her and trust her.” Deslandes, her Reims teammate, has an incredible left foot according to Alvarado. Having seen a little of Deslandes, I can agree with that. The Reims and French international has the ability to make passes that not many defenders can and she’s extremely comfortable on the ball. Alvarado’s last choice, Brandy Peterson was her teammate at TCU, and Alvarado was very clear about how good a defender she was. “Nobody could get by her. She’s probably the person I talked to the least on the field because I could just leave her, she would just do her thing because she was always so consistent, always shut everyone down on her side of the field.”
I also asked her to pick a 5-a-side team, and despite having a team on the short side, her selection was a very capable one. She selected herself in goal, Kenti Robles and Carles Puyol at the back, and to round off her 2-1-2 formation, she picked Andrea Pirlo for the midfield, and Lionel Messi and Marta up top.
As we wrapped up the interview we spoke about what she felt that fans and commentators should pay attention to more when they analyse goalkeepers. Alvarado pointed to the mental aspect of what it takes to be a goalkeeper. “I had to work on the whole mental aspect of the game. It’s very easy to get distracted and start thinking about other things because you’re not actively running or actively doing something so if you’re not consistently making saves, or getting passes back, sometimes your mind starts to wonder,” she states. “My brain is everywhere sometimes so I’ve worked really hard on reeling it back in and staying focused. More importantly, if I make a mistake, how to carry on despite it.”
I was curious about how exactly the mental aspect can be developed, especially for someone like Alvarado who admitted that her mind tends to race a lot. She happily detailed it more. “I worked on it with both my goalkeeping coaches and myself. I feel like as I’ve stepped into the world of professional soccer and international soccer, as I get older, the stakes get higher and higher,” she continues on. “You have to be able to deal with that pressure and realise it’s the same game that you’ve always played. It’s the same game that you play every game, that you practice for so I do work on a lot of that with my coaches and myself. I’m also really big into meditation, visualisation, things like that just to make sure my mind’s always right for the game.”
We finish off the interview by going back to how important it is for those watching to note how important that mental aspect of the game is. “Being a goalkeeper means that you spend 90% of your time staying focused, staying concentrated with your team,” Alvarado says. “I hope people start to recognise the little things that we do e.g. not seeing the ball for most of the game but still being able to make a save in the 87th minute. Or making sure that the backline stays organised through your communication. Or when you’re being put under pressure by an opponent, the mental capacity you need to have as a goalkeeper to stay calm and play out from the back.”
She concludes with this final statement, a statement that we all need to remember whenever we watch a game and judge a goalkeeper’s performance. “The mental aspect of the game includes when you make a mistake because how a goalkeeper recovers from that is so important. I feel like goalkeeping errors are highlighted more than anywhere else on the field. We’re bound to make mistakes and it’s blown up 50 times more than it would for anyone else. I want people to recognise that goalkeepers make mistakes and that even with that, we’re still able to keep playing and we have the mental capacity to still help the team, no matter what happens.”