NCAA Women’s Soccer: Georgetown doesn’t Need Anna Leat to Follow in Anyone’s Footsteps

Georgetown wasn’t going to find a goalkeeper who would make people forget about Arielle Schechtman, perhaps the most irreplaceable figure in college soccer a season ago.

In Anna Leat, the Hoyas, not typical national contenders in a sport increasingly dominated by the Power 5, are counting on the idea that they won’t need to.

Even before Leat arrived in Washington D.C. by way of Auckland, New Zealand, Georgetown coach Dave Nolan wasn’t opposed to looking beyond the United States to fill a roster.

But it’s also true that Nolan, whose Irish accent remains easy to place more than 30 years after he left for Seton Hall to play soccer and earn a degree, hasn’t made use of international recruiting to the same degree as many of his peers. The Hoyas were the only team in last year’s College Cup without an international player — a College Cup won by a Florida State team with stars from China, Finland and Venezuela.

No men’s or women’s soccer team from New Zealand had qualified for the quarterfinals in any World Cup age group until Anna Leat led the U-17 team to a third-place finish last year. Shane Lardinois
No men’s or women’s soccer team from New Zealand had qualified for the quarterfinals in any World Cup age group until Anna Leat led the U-17 team to a third-place finish last year. Shane Lardinois

To Nolan’s way of thinking, it’s about practicality more than philosophy. Even if such recruits are ready for Georgetown’s academic rigors, convincing them to leave home all but requires the promise of a full scholarship that could otherwise be divided into multiple partial scholarships.

“They have to be better than what you can get domestically,” Nolan said. “To some extent, you’re almost better off spending an athletic scholarship on two domestic kids, as opposed to one international — unless that international is a program-changer.”

Leat showed that ability long before she arrived in this country. In her case, it isn’t just potential. No, she didn’t single-handedly supplant the All Blacks as national sporting obsession in New Zealand. But she and her teammates seized a share of the spotlight with a third-place finish in last year’s FIFA Under-17 Women’s World Cup in Uruguay.

No soccer team from New Zealand, men’s or women’s, had progressed as far as the quarterfinals in any World Cup age group, so it was a big deal when Leat’s team eliminated Japan in a quarterfinal penalty shootout and won the third-place game against Canada. The United States, by contrast, failed to advance from its group in the tournament.

Leat and her teammates were nominated for team of the year in the Halberg Awards, New Zealand’s version of the ESPYS. Leat, who not only saved a spot kick in the shootout against Japan but also converted the winning kick, won the award for best moment.

“It kind of put women’s soccer on the map at home, which was really great,” Leat said. “It was cool to see the inspiration it was able to make.”

Three months before the U-17 World Cup, she started all three New Zealand games in the U-20 World Cup. The team missed the knockout stage but conceded the second-fewest goals in the group.

There was every reason to expect that Leat, though just 17 at the time, would make the roster for the senior World Cup this summer, even as the third goalkeeper. But she took herself out of the running before the roster was announced.

“We don’t expect [Anna] to be Arielle because in some ways she’s got gifts that Arielle didn’t have. … She’s got better feet than many of my field players.”

Georgetown coach Dave Nolan

“To actually come, as a young player of 17, and speak to an old guy like me and say that, that takes a lot of courage,” New Zealand coach Tom Sermanni said at the time. “And it takes a lot of maturity, and it is a very difficult decision to make. I completely applaud what she’s actually done because she’s made a really, really hard decision.”

Leat had by that time committed to Georgetown. She would soon depart for the other side of the world, unable to pop home for a long weekend, given the time and expenses involved. So she took the summer off from international competition. She missed out on events in France, but she traveled around New Zealand and spent time with friends and family.

“I had been doing a lot for a long time, just grinding in terms of soccer,” Leat said. “I definitely wanted, personally, to kind of have a bit of time to reset and spend some time at home and get everything in order before I made the big move over here.”

She wanted the university experience in the U.S. And she wanted some balance in her life in the months leading up to that. She isn’t sure yet what she’ll major in, but it will almost certainly involve her longstanding passion for environmentalism.

“Quite honestly, it’s probably the reason she chose us in the end,” Nolan said of the school’s academic reputation. “When she could have had maybe better soccer options.”

If that sounds overly self-effacing for a program that reached the College Cup in two of the past three seasons, it isn’t without a grounding in reality. Georgetown is the only team outside the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and Pac-12 to reach the College Cup since 2005. For most of that time, Nolan has faced questions about life after a particularly special player — Ingrid Wells, sisters Daphne and Rachel Corboz, Arielle Schechtman.

The Hoyas don’t have a depth chart full of youth national team players like Florida State, North Carolina, Stanford and UCLA do. That’s what made someone such as Schechtman so irreplaceable on a team that allowed just 10 goals in 25 games last season.

“Certainly her last two years, Arielle was the best goalkeeper in college soccer,” Nolan said. “I’ve never seen a female goalkeeper command air traffic the way Arielle did. But it helps when you’re 6 feet and have that confidence.”

Much of the defense that played in front of Schechtman returns this season, though Kelly Ann Livingstone, Meaghan Nally and Jenna Royson have played in a three-back alignment at times because a shortage of forwards made a 3-5-2 more practical than a 4-3-3. But changing keepers changes everything about the way a defense operates, like an orchestra changing conductors.

Georgetown allowed four goals in its first two games, though Nolan said Leat was flawless in a 3-1 loss to NC State, let down by defensive miscues in front of her. The Hoyas then played Duke to a 0-0 draw and blanked Bucknell, the last of those with Leat getting a day off.

“We don’t expect [Anna] to be Arielle because in some ways she’s got gifts that Arielle didn’t have,” Nolan said. “Anna’s feet are exceptional. She’s got better feet than many of my field players. So she changes how we play with that ability.”

Nothing will serve her better than simply being herself.

Leat’s official visit last fall was delayed because both her New Zealand U-17 team and Georgetown kept playing deeper into November than most expected. By the time schedules finally aligned, Leat’s mom had taken too much time off work to accompany her daughter on the trip to the United States. Leat traveled on her own, only to find that she couldn’t check in to the hotel as a minor.

She was alone in D.C. with the Georgetown coaches away at a recruiting event in Florida until the next day. Even after scrambling to help Leat find an alternative hotel, Nolan worried that a nightmare trip might leave such a poor taste in her mouth as to scratch the Hoyas from her list.

Instead, she wandered out of the hotel the next morning, saw some people on the rental scooters now ubiquitous in big cities, asked them how they worked and took off on her own sightseeing tour of the nation’s capital.

“I’m kind of used to traveling at this point,” Leat said. “I just go with the flow when I can. I was nervous to come and visit the school and meet everyone and see what it was like. But in terms of seeing everything, I think D.C. is such a cool city, so I was just excited to have a chance to look around.”

Georgetown wasn’t going to find another Arielle Schechtman. So it went to New Zealand to find Anna Leat.

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Author: Graham Hays