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Column: Women’s World Cup: Goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher is the saving grace for U.S. in 2-1 win over England

FBL-WC-2019-WOMEN-MATCH49-ENG-USA
U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher stops a penalty kick to preserve a 2-1 victory over England in the Women’s World Cup semifinals in France on Tuesday.
(Jean-Philippe Ksiazek / Getty Images)

A wave of teammates sprinted toward U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher to thank her for saving a late penalty kick against England and essentially saving their Women’s World Cup tournament, but Naeher wasn’t looking for hugs. She was in full-on game mode, already thinking about the next play and how the team could preserve or pad its one-goal lead.

So when Julie Ertz, Alex Morgan and Kelley O’Hara tried to embrace Naeher after she had lunged to her right to smother England captain Steph Houghton’s penalty kick in the 84th minute of the teams’ semifinal Tuesday, Naeher didn’t return the affection. She got in their faces and yelled and gestured with her left hand for them to get back into position. Wisely, they listened and fled. “I wanted to transition, try to get a goal,” Naeher said of her unemotional reaction to her biggest moment on the world stage.

The U.S. didn’t get another goal, but Naeher’s performance ensured that headers by surprise starter Christen Press and team captain Morgan in the first half were enough to hold off an admirably tenacious English team and secure a 2-1 victory.

On Sunday the Americans will get the chance to repeat as World Cup champions, and they must be favored over the winner of the Sweden-Netherlands semifinal on Wednesday. They’ve earned it through their skill, their grittiness, their depth — they won Tuesday without Megan Rapinoe, who sat out because of a minor hamstring injury — and, yes, their goalkeeper.

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The penalty kick was only one of Naeher’s memorable feats at Stade de Lyon. She also had gone to her left to stop a dangerous long chance by Keira Walsh in the 32nd minute, shortly after Morgan’s header had put the U.S. ahead. She was focused, calm, in command.

“She saved our ass,” Morgan said in an international TV interview before apologizing and substituting “butt” for the mildly family-unfriendly word she had used.

Pardon Morgan’s language, but her sentiment was genuine. The victory that put the U.S. in the final for the third straight World Cup and made possible its fourth championship was a showcase for Naeher, her moment in the sun after years of being overshadowed by the big game and big personality of Hope Solo. Her teammates considered her turn in the international spotlight long overdue.

“Alyssa Naeher played absolutely out of her mind,” O’Hara said, “but you know what? That’s what she does day in and day out. And I’m proud that the world finally got to see that and she proved that she’s the best in the world. Truly the best in the world.”

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Naeher backed up Solo in the 2015 World Cup but didn’t play, and her lack of experience at this level was considered a potential weak spot for the U.S. here. Her gaffe in badly distributing the ball to defender Becky Sauerbrunn led to a goal by Spain in a 2-1 victory in the round of 16, rekindled the doubts and drew biting words from Solo, who has been working as a BBC analyst.

Solo criticized Naeher’s decision-making, but Naeher was just fine in that regard while recording three relatively easy shutouts in group play and yielding one goal in each of the team’s three knockout games against Spain, France and England, each contest more grueling and challenging than the one before. “We see what she does every day in practice when she saves our own PKs, much to our frustrations,” midfielder Rose Lavelle said. “So we had all the faith in the world that she was going to save it. She came up big for us.”

They’ve gone from Hope to faith and haven’t lost a beat.

Naeher said she was primed for the chance by Houghton. “We know they’re a team that likes to shoot from distance and we prepared for it and I was able to get a good read on it and a good touch,” she said.

On the penalty kick, awarded after a video review, Naeher didn’t overthink things. “I just tried to get a good read on it, try to take a few deep breaths, get focused on the ball, focused on the play and let instincts take over from there,” she said. “At that point, just it’s a feeling. You just try to be in the moment, be in the game, and hope it goes your way.”

Her eagerness to accept her teammates’ hugs at the end of the game signified how much the game had meant to her. “To be able to get a save in the 80th minute or whatever it was and just be able to play my role, play my part to help this team advance to the gold-medal game, it’s huge,” Naeher said. “It takes all 23 of us. It’s a special team. Everybody fought hard tonight for all 90 minutes.”

Naeher should no longer have to fight for appreciation from those outside her team. “She’s been my No. 1,” coach Jill Ellis said. “The theme of the tournament [is] ‘Dare to Shine,’ right? I said to my players the other day, all we ask is that they shine the brightest. She shone tonight. She was the brightest. I give her full credit. I think she’s a tremendous person. People care about her. People have her back. I think 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 creating her own legacy, and I think that’s fantastic.

“And,” Ellis added with a smile, thinking of the gutsy penalty-kick stop, “yeah, hell of a save, for sure.”

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Without question, it was one to embrace.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen


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