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Opinion: Alyssa Naeher lets her play do the talking in USWNT's win over Netherlands at Tokyo Olympics

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YOKOHAMA, Japan — Alyssa Naeher is not one to talk trash, brag or say much of anything, really.

She doesn’t need to. Her play says enough.

Naeher ensured that the USWNT would not make another early exit from the Olympics with perhaps the best game of her career, saving two penalty kicks during a quarterfinal shootaround against the Netherlands on Friday night.

She stopped another PK during regulation, and also made a big save in the 103rd minute to keep goal-machine Vivianne Miedema from getting a hat trick.

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“Unbelievable,” said Megan Rapinoe, who converted the last penalty to give the Americans the win in the quarterfinals. “To take a penalty from them in the run of play is huge, and then to give us two in the shootout, that just made it so easy for us, especially them going first.

“Taking that first one, it takes pressure off the team,” Rapinoe said. “She’s just been immense. She’s been absolutely huge for us.”

USWNT goalie Alyssa Naeher saves a shot against the Netherlands in a penalty shootout during the women's quarterfinals at the Tokyo Olympics.
USWNT goalie Alyssa Naeher saves a shot against the Netherlands in a penalty shootout during the women's quarterfinals at the Tokyo Olympics.

Naeher had the unenviable task of following Hope Solo, who was as incendiary as she was talented, as the USWNT’s goalkeeper. Solo was never afraid to speak her mind, often to her detriment, nor was she above a little gamesmanship.

Naeher is the polar opposite. A New England Patriots fan, she channels Bill Belichick minus the surliness – after a rough opener against Sweden, she even said the USWNT was “on to New Zealand” – and the closest she comes to causing controversy is doing crossword puzzles in ink.

Some have mistaken that calm demeanor for softness, and she was – unfairly – portrayed as the USWNT’s weak link ahead of the 2019 World Cup.

Her teammates know better, however.

The USWNT’s struggles in the first three games of this tournament were not Naeher’s doing. The Americans were held scoreless in two of their first three games, and have had more goals disallowed for being offside than you’ll see at an AYSO game.

But with the USWNT’s backs against the wall against the Dutch, Naeher is the one who bailed them out.

“There’s no one else I’d rather have in the back of the net than her,” Rose Lavelle said. “She deserves all the credit in the world. She’s the reason we’re still in this.”

The Americans scored twice in a three-minute span late in the first half to take a 2-1 lead. But after Miedema threaded a ball through Julie Ertz’s legs in the 54th minute for her 10th goal of the tournament, an Olympic record, the momentum swung firmly in the Netherlands’ favor.

The Dutch made themselves at home on the U.S. side of the field, and had a chance to take the lead in the 81st minute when Kelley O’Hara brought Lineth Beerensteyn down in the area. But Naeher, in shades of her performance in the World Cup semifinal against England, dove left and batted the ball away.

She also made a spectacular save of a blistering shot by Miedema in the 103rd.

“Absolutely ridiculous,” Alex Morgan said. “She’s out of this world.”

Shootouts are soccer’s equivalent of a crapshoot. Yes, there’s some skill involved, as well as strategy and homework. But it largely comes down to luck, making the right guess on where the shooter is going to aim for and timing a dive right to make the stop.

Five years ago, the USWNT made its earliest exit ever at a major tournament, losing to Sweden on PKs, also in the quarterfinals.

The difference in the outcome Friday was Naeher.

Shooting first, the Netherlands put Miedema at the spot first. Because, of course. The buildup seemed to take forever, but as Miedema took her shot, Naeher dove to her right, her hands finding the ball before it could reach the goal line and knocking it away.

Lavelle, Morgan and Christen Press made the Americans’ first three PKs, and Dominique Janssen and Stefanie van der Gragt made two for the Dutch. That brought up Aniek Nouwen, and Naeher stopped her cold, too.

When Rapinoe put her PK beyond Dutch keeper Sari van Veenendaal’s reach, the Americans were on to the semifinals.

“We had some very good times during the game, but at the end of the game, it doesn’t matter,” van Veenendaal said. “We go home and they stay in the tournament.”

And it’s all thanks to Naeher. Not that she’d ever acknowledge it.

“To get the win feels very, very satisfying,” she allowed.

“I don’t know about any of that,” Naeher said when someone asked if this was the best game of her career. “I said from the beginning that all I want is to help my team win a gold medal.”

That says it all.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Alyssa Naeher lets play do talking; USWNT on to semis of Tokyo Games