United States goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher was the undisputed hero of the match in the World Cup semifinal victory over England on Tuesday. In her first major moment in the spotlight she came up big, stopping a penalty kick in the 84th minute that would have tied it.
“She saved our ass,” Alex Morgan said, referring to the PK as well as multiple tough saves.
Naeher’s predecessor, Hope Solo, isn’t as sure about the praise, dancing around it in her latest column for The Guardian. Solo didn’t critique Naeher or call her out, but she didn’t bestow many accolades, either, despite how big this moment was for her former teammate. Instead she blamed poor prep by England and a bad kick by Steph Houghton that she herself could read from the sideline, only issuing this to her former teammate:
Alyssa Naeher had a great save in the first-half to confirm that no one is going to score against an American goalkeeper from outside the box. American goalkeepers are well trained and historically very strong, an area in which England have struggled down the years. It has been great to see Alyssa gain more confidence as the tournament has gone on.
Naeher replaced Solo as the U.S. goalkeeper in 2016 and as such she is constantly compared to the star. To be fair, it’s hard not to. Though she created problematic headlines off the pitch, Solo is widely regarded as the game’s best keeper and helped the U.S. to its 2015 World Cup title.
Now Naeher, 31, is looking to do the same for an American repeat. For months she’s been seen as the weak link. A question mark. Untested. Unsure.
The semifinal against England proved she’s up to the task. The stop in the 84th minute — the critically important specifics of which are not mentioned in Solo’s column — effectively sent the U.S. to the final. It followed a long save in the first and a tip in the second half that preserved leads.
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) July 3, 2019
Solo instead blamed the penalty kick decision process of England and the kick itself from Houghton. The focus of her column was that the U.S. has mastered the fine details while England still has some catching up to do if the Lionesses are to make the final in 2023.
Watching from the other side of the pitch, I knew from the way she lined up in front of the ball that she was going to go to the goalkeeper’s right. That’s what goalkeepers are taught to see. Top penalty takers are also taught how to disguise which direction they will shoot. It’s these details that make the difference. To compound things, Steph also mishit the kick. There was no pace on the ball and it was not placed in the corner, making it easy for a well-trained goalkeeper to save.
It should be noted Solo is writing for a British audience, one that tuned in at record numbers to watch their Lionesses and doesn’t want to read more about a team many see as arrogant. The Guardian’s main demographic wants to read analysis of success and miscues with a hope for how this squad will grow. Solo is simply doing the job she was hired to do.
Her focus this time around was that England missed the small details and it guided the top end of her piece. And Solo’s take on Houghton’s kick isn’t wrong. It was clear on the first replay FOX showed that Houghton gave away the read early and topped the ball on the execution.
Yet that doesn’t take away what Naeher did on the biggest stage, in the biggest moment, after the biggest month of concern she may ever see. She still had to make the read. She had to make the stop and corral it so England didn’t get the chance at a rebound. And she had to do it all under the pressure that’s mounted while her teammates provide so much offense she’s barely needed.
Solo noted what England could do to avoid this in the next tournament. She described how every USWNT player practices penalty kicks after every practice to gain confidence. Coaches take note and use the tendencies to their advantage.
It is Naeher who has stood up against many of those practice shots for years, both as America’s starter and as Solo’s backup. When it came time to do it under pressure, she succeeded when Houghton did not. It may not have been the most miraculous of PK saves, but it was a PK save that sent the Americans to a second consecutive World Cup final. Naeher earned this moment, one that deserves more than a tip-toe around proper praise from the woman who did it before her.
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