LYON, France — She was the biggest single U.S. concern heading into this Women's World Cup. Goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher had never started in a major tournament before this one, though it’s not like it was her fault that she followed two legends. The last time a USWNT keeper other than Hope Solo or Briana Scurry had started in a World Cup knockout game before 2019 was in 1991.
Back in April at an event in New York City, even Scurry wondered aloud whether Naeher was ready for her sport’s most important tournament.
“There’s one difference this World Cup team has, the USA, that no other team previously has had,” Scurry said, “and that’s a question mark at the goalkeeper position.”
Former U.S. star Heather O’Reilly, who was hosting the event, said: “She went there.”
Yes, there were worries about Naeher—worries that didn’t abate after she whiffed on a ball that ended up in the net against Chile (but was ruled offside) or after her hospital-ball pass in the back helped gift a goal to Spain in the round of 16. Those worries were compounded when you looked in the stands and saw Solo, dropped from the team in 2016 for reasons outside of soccer, looming over the proceedings from her BBC pedestal.
But this Women's World Cup was always a giant opportunity for Naeher as well, a chance to earn her own place in the proud U.S. goalkeeper pantheon. On Tuesday that opportunity came, and she grabbed it with both of her giant gloved hands. In a taut semifinal victory over England, Naeher, 31, had the defining moments of her international career.
The first came in the 33rd minute, right after Alex Morgan’s goal had put the U.S. ahead 2-1. England’s Keira Walsh unloaded a shot from distance that looked destined to find the upper right corner of the goal. Naeher, stationed in the other side of her goal, flew across the face of her goalmouth, arms extended, and swatted the ball out of the air to parry a sure equalizer.
“They came down and had a good look,” Naeher said afterward. “We knew she likes to shoot from distance. That’s something we were prepared for. And I was able to get a good read on it and a good touch.”
Naeher is relentlessly quiet, understated. She likes to do crossword puzzles. It is the sign of an active mind. Curious. Cerebral. Always studying the options in front of her to move forward, to provide solutions. Naeher is not the type of goalkeeper who squawks at her back line the whole game. But what she did in the final minutes of Tuesday’s win will speak for her more than any chattering could do.
A penalty was called. Naeher stood on her line 12 yards from England captain Steph Houghton. The game was on the verge of a 2-2 tie, potentially extra time and the possibility that England, with all the momentum in the world, might end the Americans’ dream of a title repeat.
Houghton, who never looked entirely comfortable, delivered a mediocre spot kick. But you still have to save it if you’re the goalkeeper—how often do we see one guess completely wrong and go in the other direction?—and Naeher moved correctly. Save made.
“I was just trying to get a good read on it,” she said afterward. “Trying to just take a few deep breaths, get focused on the ball, get focused on the player and kind of let instinct take over from there.”
“Holy s—t, that's just a f—king huge moment,” said Megan Rapinoe, whose surprise absence–later revealed to be due to a minor hamstring injury that she says won't keep her from the final–wound up a footnote on the day.
“She saved our ass,” said a succinct Alex Morgan, whose 31st-minute goal, on her 30th birthday, wound up being the winner.
Added Christen Press, who scored the USA's opener, which marked the sixth straight match scoring within the first 12 mintues: “There’s no words I can give you to let you know how proud I personally am of Alyssa and how proud our team is.”
When the final whistle blew, nearly the entire U.S. team went running en masse toward Naeher, engulfing her in a blanket of affection.
“There’s the theme of the tournament: Dare to Shine, right?” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. “So I said to my players the other day: We’re going to add to that. Dare to Shine The Brightest … So I said to her tonight: She shined tonight. She was the brightest. I give her full credit. She’s a tremendous person. People care about her. People have her back. People are just starting to see glimpses of what I see every day in training in terms of her capabilities. I think she’s making her own mark and creating her own legacy, and that’s fantastic.
“Hell of a save.”
Naeher is so focused on the business at hand that she didn’t really want her teammates to surround her with congratulations after her penalty save.
“I didn’t want to get called for eight seconds [by the referee],” she said. “I wasn’t sure what the referee was going to do.”
Within minutes, the referee had blown the whistle. Naeher had done it, had come up with a career-defining moment in a Women's World Cup semifinal. You knew she would be needed at some point–and here it was–and she passed the test.
Not that anybody expected this moment would change the U.S. goalkeeper even a tiny bit.
“She’s going to do what she does,” said defender Becky Sauerbrunn, whose foul spotted by VAR led to the England penalty. “Because she’s Alyssa, and that’s how she rolls. So she’ll probably get on the bus and do a crossword and be ready for the next game.”
The next game, in case you forgot, is the Women's World Cup final.