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Far from home, German standout goalkeeper Pauline Nelles defends a new net

Sophomore goalkeeper Pauline Nelles has become ASU's trustworthy last line of defense

Sports-ASU-Soccer-Pauline-Nelles .jpg
ASU sophomore goalkeeper Pauline Nelles (16) greets fans in the stands at Sun Devil Soccer Stadium in Tempe on Aug. 31, 2023. ASU tied with Boise St. 0-0.

Sophomore goalkeeper Pauline Nelles has denied shot after shot this season, shutting down offenses and providing ASU a fighting chance in each match. Originally from Bonn, Germany, Nelles has settled into life across the globe to become the backbone of ASU’s defense.

Before touching down in Tempe, Nelles played for the German national team and FC Köln Frauen, a Bundesliga club. As a member of Germany’s U-17 squad, Nelles denied four straight shots in the 2019 UEFA Women’s Under-17 Championship final to help her country win 3-2 on penalties. 

When she became eligible for the U-20 team, Nelles got the chance to suit up for her nation at the 2022 U-20 Women’s World Cup in Costa Rica. While she didn’t hit the pitch, Nelles said it was an honor to play for Germany and attend the prestigious tournament.

"The under-17 European championship was a nice experience, but the (World Cup) was different," Nelles said. "You travel to a completely different continent. So it was insane, like experience-wise it was amazing."

Less than two weeks after the World Cup, Nelles played her first collegiate match in the Sun Devils’ 2-1 2022 victory against Boise State. During her freshman campaign, she started 17 of ASU’s 18 matches and posted a 1.59 goals against average. In her best performance, she made a career-high nine saves in the Sun Devils’ scoreless draw against Utah. 

Reflecting on her first season, Nelles said it was challenging to move to a new country while learning the ropes of collegiate soccer. While ASU fell short in the NCAA Tournament, Nelles thought the team had a terrific season and that she performed well for a young goalkeeper.

"I thought I'd come here, learn a new language, but also just practice," Nelles said. "I didn't really expect that I was going to play right away. So that was, I mean, crazy, you know, to play every minute."

So far Nelles has greatly improved this season, as she has given up fewer goals and made more saves than at this point last year. She currently boasts a 0.33 GAA and 0.900 save percentage while recording four shutouts in six matches. For her exceptional performance, Nelles was named the Pac-12 Goalkeeper of the Week on Aug. 21 after back-to-back shutouts.

Nelles' unwavering presence between the woodwork partially stems from her lengthy pregame routine. Before each game, Nelles sits alone in the locker room and listens to music, locking herself into a game-time mindset ready to face shot after shot. 

Once she hits the field, assistant coach Ali Hanif helps Nelles warm up by running through countless match situations depending on what she needs to work on.

"They've all got different styles, and they've all got different needs and wants for when it comes to a game day," Hanif said. "So I try my best to cater to them and make sure that they get what they need. They're really, really confident in letting us know what they need."

Besides making crucial saves, Nelles also oversees ASU’s back line by talking to her teammates on the pitch and calling out commands. Freshman forward Savannah Maley said Nelles always thinks a play ahead and is able to read situations well, helping set up passes and spur counterattacks. 

"She has a very broad vision and she can see the entire field, so that's really nice," Maley said. "She's just very calm and composed and knows how to play soccer, which, she has a very good soccer knowledge playing in a World Cup."

Between matches, Nelles is a positive force in the locker room who encourages her teammates at every opportunity. In particular, Nelles and the team’s backup goalkeepers hype each other up and offer advice to one another. While her teammates say she is quiet, Hanif said Nelles steps up in key moments to support her fellow Sun Devils.  

With the rest of the season in sight, Nelles aims to build on her success from last season to help the team advance deeper in the NCAA Tournament.

"I want the team to win," Nelles said. "But, I also expect from me, from my point, that I have a higher goal."

Edited by Alfred Smith III, Alexis Waiss and Grace Copperthite.

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