U.S. women's soccer team edges Netherlands on penalty kicks to advance at Olympics

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Yokohama, Japan, Friday, July 30, 2021 - USA teammates rush to congratulate Megan Rapino and Team goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher (1) after a shootout victory over Netherlands in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Women's Football Quarterfinal at International Stadium Yokohama. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)
Teammates rush to congratulate Megan Rapino and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher after a shootout victory over Netherlands in the women's soccer quarterfinal. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

For several minutes, goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher sat on the grass alone with her thoughts.

She had just saved the game, her team’s chance at a historic world championship double, coach Vlatko Andonovski’s reputation and perhaps a big part of the national team’s legacy. She did it by saving three penalty kicks — one in regulation and two in a tie-breaking penalty-kick shootout — to beat the Netherlands and earn her team a spot in the semifinals of the Tokyo Olympics.

And so she sat, knees bent, arms extended behind her, on the floor of an empty Yokohama International Stadium and let the emotion wash over her, not sure whether she should laugh or cry.

So she did a little of both.

“That was a true team effort and team win,” she said. “I could not be more proud of the way this team fought tonight.”

That was what she was supposed to say, but no one was buying it. It wasn’t really a team effort, her teammates insisted. It was a one-woman show and Naeher was the star. The game had ended in a 2-2 tie largely because of two huge saves, the first on a Lieke Martens’ penalty kick in the 81st minute and the other on Vivianne Miedema’s header 13 minutes into extra time.

“What we saw tonight, she had an incredible game,” said forward Lynn Williams, who had a goal and an assist three minutes apart in the first half to account for the U.S. scoring. “She kept us in the game. I don't know how she does it. I'm amazed.”

The game was won in the shootout when Naeher stopped Miedema on the Netherlands’ first penalty try and Aniek Nouwen on the fourth.

“Unbelievable,” said Megan Rapinoe, who calmly slotted home the penalty kick that sent the U.S. on to Monday’s semifinal with Canada in Kashima, 70 miles west of Tokyo. “She's been huge this whole tournament. She's just been immense.”

American goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher makes a save against Netherlands forward Vivianne Miedema,
U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher makes a save against Netherlands forward Vivianne Miedema, the first of two saves in a shootout victory over Netherlands. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

The Dutch outplayed and outshot the Americans, leading their coach, Sarina Wiegman, to say, “We deserved to win.”

But they didn’t because of Naeher, whose performance Friday on one of the sport’s biggest stages will become an indelible part of U.S. soccer history.

Naeher had been one of the lone bright spots in a dismal first three games by the U.S., which limped into the quarterfinals looking for a spark. And Williams provided that early, giving the Americans the pace and energy it had lacked in the worst group-stage performance in a world championship in national team history.

An acrobatic goal by Miedema had staked the Netherlands to a 1-0 lead in the 18th minute before Williams went to work, setting up Sam Mewis’ header with a perfect cross for a goal in the 28th minute, then scoring one of her own in the 31st.

Williams was one of the last players cut from the 2019 World Cup team and was originally named to the Tokyo squad as an alternate. When FIFA, in a nod to the disruptions caused by COVID-19, allowed teams to expand their rosters, Williams finally got a chance to start in a major international event against the Netherlands, the team the U.S. beat in the last World Cup final.

With another win over the Dutch on Friday, the Americans kept alive their hopes of becoming the first team in history to win a World Cup and Olympic championship in the same cycle.

“You think about those things,” the former Pepperdine standout said. “So when Vlakto gave me the opportunity to [start] this game, first of all I was in shock. But I just wanted to do what my teammates need me to do.

“On a personal side, yeah, it's great. But I don't play a personal sport. I play a team sport.”

Miedema tied the score nine minutes into the second half, rolling a shot through the legs of U.S. midfielder Julie Ertz and just out of the reach of a diving Naeher for her 10th goal of the tournament, extending her Olympic record. But Naeher would surrender no more, allowing Andonovski, who has made some head-scratching decisions in this tournament, to make one that proved brilliant.

With his team playing for the fourth time in 10 days, Andonovski was unsure Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Christen Press and Rose Lavelle could go 90 minutes — much less 120 — in the heat and the humidity of the Japanese summer. So with extra time and penalties a possibility, he kept them on the bench until the 58th minute, then began subbing them on.

All four scored in the penalty shootout, with Press’ conversion making up for her miss five years ago when the U.S. met the same fate against Sweden that the Dutch experienced Friday: losing an Olympic quarterfinal on penalties.

“This is who we are,” Rapinoe said. “It’s the knockout round. You either get on a flight tomorrow or drive to Kashima. It’s a tough tournament in tough conditions, on and off the field. The team just never really quits.”

Of the shot that ended the long night, Rapinoe smiled and said there was no pressure.

“I always say to myself, ‘the worst that’s going to happen is you’re going to lose the whole thing,'” she said. “You can take one and lose it or you can take one and win it. It’s got to go one of two ways.”

Naeher made sure it went the right way for the U.S. on Friday.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.