By Brady Johnson
UO Athletic Communications
Making save after save, junior goalkeeper Abby Steele has kept a rebuilding Oregon women’s soccer program neck-and-neck in all 18 matches this season and has raised her status as a premiere goalkeeper in the Pac-12. Judging from Steele’s exploits, it would appear as if she was born and bred to play between the posts.
In reality, she more or less just happened upon the position.
As an eight-year-old, Steele’s first soccer coach was her father, Richard. When it came time for the kids to pick positions, not a single player volunteered for goalkeeping duties. Rather than upset a parent that wants their daughter playing a field position like forward, Richard assigned Abby as the netminder.
A goalkeeper was born.
“Yeah, it’s a funny story how I started playing goalkeeper,” said the Santa Ramon, Calif., native. “I ended up trying a few other positions, but I came back to goalkeeper when it became obvious it was my best position.”
Steele learned the ropes of goalkeeping on her father’s team, and later played at forward. In the end, Steele settled for the position she was most comfortable with and showed the most promise – goalkeeping. 10 years later, her decision proved to be the right one.
“She’s been huge this season,” said first year head coach Kat Mertz, who was a four-year starting goalkeeper for North Carolina State from 1994-1997. “It’s awesome to have a great goalkeeper like her in the back of the net. We rely on her almost too much. She’s made some incredible saves this season and our opponents have thought, ‘Oh jeez, how are we going to beat this keeper’?”
Steele decided to be a goalkeeper after relishing the inherent pressure that comes with the position… just a single mistake, and the ball is in the back of your net. No matter what the opposition brought forward, Steele wanted to face the pressure and turn them back empty-handed every time.
With that mindset, Steele became one of the most highly touted goalkeepers in California. She signed her letter of intent to UO before the 2011 season and wasted little time making an impact for the Ducks. Steele started in 38-of-40 matches as an underclassman, making 158 saves in her first two seasons.
After four straight losing seasons, Oregon cut ties with former coach Tara Erickson and hired Mertz from Saint Louis University. Mertz has extensive experience coaching elite goalkeepers, including coaching a pair of U-20 FIFA World Cup golden glove winners in the youth national team system. She knew of Steele prior to arriving in Eugene, and was excited to work with her.
Despite Steele’s impressive credentials through two seasons, Mertz wanted to challenge Steele to set the bar even higher and become one of the most important players on the field – a general to the players in front of her rather than just a shot-saver.
“It was really important for us as a coaching staff to hold the standard very high for her,” said Mertz. “We wanted to push her to be a leader of the team from the front rather than the back. The thing is, she has absolutely risen to the occasion and met our challenges.”
With the Ducks continuing to develop an offensive identity, the team has often relied on Steele nearly to a fault to come up with big performances and keep them in games. She’s answered the toll every time as the Ducks have only lost one game by more than a single goal – a hard-fought 2-0 loss to second-ranked UCLA.
Mertz has been involved with numerous elite collegiate goalkeepers, and has coached current starting keepers of five different Pac-12 programs during various youth national and Olympic development camps. Mertz said she has no question that Steele is the top goalkeeper in the conference.
Steele's season numbers in 2013 are all career-bests and she ranks near the top of the Pac-12 in all categories. She’s made crucial saves – like a penalty kick save against No. 12 California or a diving save to stop an almost-impossible header against No. 6 BYU – and has led the Ducks to five shutouts.
“Look at the California game – she nearly single-handedly won us that game,” said assistant coach Hideki Nakada, who works with Oregon’s goalkeepers each practice. “That’s the difference between the average goalkeeper and a great one.”
While her saves have been inspiring, Steele has far more on her plate than just that. During matches, she’s constantly doing things that don’t show up in the box score; evaluating her back line’s positioning and calling out instructions, coming off on crosses and stopping breakaways.
Put it all together, and Steele has undoubtedly been one of the team’s most valuable players this season.
“At this level, the highest level you can play at in Division I, most goalkeepers can stop shots,” said Nakada. “But the things that she does better or best are the things that don’t always show up. She prevents a lot of chances before the other team even gets a look on goal. The presence she has makes a huge difference for us.”
When looking towards the future, Steele is the centerpiece for high expectations next season as a potential four-year starter, like her head coach was. Steele isn’t ready to look that far ahead though, as she focuses on one last goal for the 2013 season – shutting out Oregon State.
The season-ending Civil War battle is this Thursday at Lorenz Field in Corvallis. First touch is set for 1 p.m. (PT). In two meetings with the Beavers, Steele has played all 200 minutes, making 11 saves while allowing just a single goal.
If Steele’s final showing of the year reflects the impressive season she’s had, the Ducks will have a great shot at writing a happy ending for the 2013 season.