LYON, France — When the final whistle sounded and United States women’s national team could finally relax and celebrate its 2-1 win over England in Tuesday’s thrilling World Cup semifinal, it was obvious who the star of the night had been.
It wasn’t captain Alex Morgan, scorer of the game-winning goal in the second half. It wasn’t fleet-footed Christen Press, who replaced the injured Megan Rapinoe in the American lineup and gave them the lead before the contest was even 10 minutes old.
No, the entire U.S. bench made a beeline straight for understated goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who disappeared in a sea of bodies hugging and whooping it up in appreciation of Naeher’s late penalty kick save that preserved the victory and sent the defending champions back to the Sunday’s title match.
If the U.S. was to repeat this summer in France, the thinking went before the knockout stage began, Naeher would eventually have to come up huge. She was solid against France in the quarters last week, but she didn’t have to be anything more than that.
But her defining moment came without a doubt Tuesday when, with millions of fans watching back home, the 31-year-old dove to her right to smother Steph Houghton’s shot. The stop was as brilliant as it was timely, and it came with an added benefit: allowing Naeher to finally emerge from Hope Solo’s long shadow for good.
“Obviously [Naeher] has a particular person that she’s following that had so much attention on her,” Rapinoe said without actually naming Solo, who led the U.S. to the 2015 title and is widely regarded as the best keeper to ever play game, but who was also a source of constant off field drama for most of her decade-plus as the national team’s undisputed starter.
“She hasn’t really had moments like these to come into herself. She’s an incredible goalkeeper. She’s so steady for us back there. For her to have this moment, for her personally, I think is just so special. It’s one of those things she’ll never forget.”
Naeher replaced Solo as the USWNT’s No. 1 in 2016 and her low-key demeanor has made her immensely popular with her teammates since. And that’s been the narrative around Naeher this summer. The actual soccer part? That has remained an open question, mainly because the Americans’ offensive dominance has left her with little to do. All of that changed Tuesday.
Even before the game’s decisive play, Naeher proved she was up to any challenge. Moments after Morgan put the U.S. ahead for the second time in the match, she made a full-stretch save to maintain the lead and the momentum.
“She saved our ass,” Morgan said.
Becky Sauerbrunn, who clipped English forward Ellen White’s heel to set up the penalty kick, wasn’t at all surprised that Naeher bailed them — and her — out. “I don’t think she needed to have a big moment for us to know how good she is,” Sauerbrunn said. “Maybe everyone else needed that moment. We knew what she was capable of, and now the world knows.”
“We see what she does in practice every day,” added midfielder Rose Lavelle, who was outstanding at Stade de Lyon. “She saves our own penalties, to our frustration.”
And Press, who has become especially close with Naeher, was ecstatic for her friend. “There’s no words that I can give you to let you know how proud I am personally of Alyssa and how proud our entire team is,” Press said. “She’s just shown so much courage and bravery throughout this tournament.”
Much of that has to do with how she’s handled the constant comparisons to Solo, who has consistently taken pot-shots at her former team in her new role as a BBC analyst. Even after the game of her life, Naeher was quizzed about Hope.
“I don’t get wrapped up in the comparisons,” she answered gently, her voice barely audible above the din in a hallway deep in the belly of the stadium. “I just try to be me.”
Still, she’s no wallflower. There’s a quiet confidence there. Nothing seems to faze her. “She’ll probably get on the bus and do a crossword and get ready for the next game,” Sauerbrunn cracked. “That’s how she rolls.”
Her teammates clearly adore her for it. So does her coach.
“She’s a tremendous person,” Jill Ellis gushed in her postgame news conference. “People care about her. People have her back, and people are just starting to see glimpses of what I see every day in training in terms of her capabilities. She’s making her own mark and she’s creating her own legacy.
“And,” Ellis said. “A hell of a save.”
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