SANDY — The interview happened over a month ago, but the points raised still stand.
After Utah Royals FC beat the Chicago Red Stars 1-0 at Rio Tinto Stadium for their third straight win by that scoreline to start the 2019 season, URFC head coach Laura Harvey was asked about her veteran goalkeeper, Nicole Barnhart.
What would there be left to say about the unassuming 37-year-old who had a solid but unspectacular run with the United States Women’s National Team and who has been a rock in goal on the club level without much fanfare?
“She’s a joke of a human,” Harvey began.
The words were the highest compliment, of course. After all, Barnhart (she’s most well-known as “Barnie”) is the oldest player in the National Women’s Soccer League (she’ll turn 38 two days before the last game of the regular season this year) and just about a year and a half Harvey’s junior.
I feel like I’m playing some of my best soccer ever, moving better than I have. – Royals goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart
Nevertheless, she’s remained one of the best goalkeepers in the NWSL. Yes, the URFC defense is stingy so Barnhart perhaps hasn’t had to work as much as some others at her position around the league, but she now leads the league in shutouts with five through eight games after URFC beat Sky Blue FC 1-0 on Saturday at home.
Additionally, Barnhart is tied with the Washington Spirit’s Aubrey Bledsoe for the best goals against average at just 0.625 per game.
All of this is coming a year after Barnhart dealt with a severe ankle injury that caused her to be slow in getting into form during the 2018 season, but she hasn’t shown any ill effects of the injury in 2019.
“When someone doesn’t concede goals the way Barnie does, you can’t keep dismissing her,” Harvey said last month. “Maybe age is going against her a little bit, but she’s been phenomenal for us and I hope it continues.”
On Saturday, Barnhart said she’s indeed completely back from her injury, and she doesn’t plan on slowing down soon, while Harvey said last month “we’re seeing the best of Barnie athletically.”
“I feel good. I feel like I’m playing some of my best soccer ever, moving better than I have,” Barnhart said Saturday after a game in which she was credited with making five saves. “Hopefully I can carry that out for a few more years, but I’m happy with where I am right now and want to keep getting better and keep improving over the course of the season.”
Barnhart’s strong play is coming at an interesting time for URFC, as three members of its back line (Becky Sauerbrunn, Rachel Corsie and Katie Bowen) are playing in the World Cup, and two of the replacements are rookies, center back Gaby Vincent and outside back Michelle Maemone.
The situation has given Barnhart the chance to teach the youngsters, something she said she enjoys doing (she is also an official member of the Utah Royals FC Reserves coaching staff, where she helps the newly formed team’s goalkeepers as her schedule allows).
“Being one of the veterans on the team, one of the leaders on the team, especially the one that sees everything going on on the field, I love helping them and guiding them,” she said Saturday of Vincent and Maemone. “I was in that position at one point a long time ago. I know where they are, I know how they feel and I think they have a lot of potential, so I want to push them and help them to get there.”