YOKOHAMA, Japan (AP) – Much as she did at the 2019 World Cup, U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher came up big at the Olympics in the tensest of moments.
Naeher made three crucial penalty saves for the United States in its quarterfinal match against the Netherlands, one in regulation and two during a shootout, that kept the Americans alive at the Tokyo Games.
And with that, Naeher cemented a reputation for stunning saves that save the day.
Megan Rapinoe said the soft-spoken Naeher likely wouldn’t take credit for the win, but she deserved it.
“Obviously to take a penalty from them in the run of play was huge, and then to get us two in the shootout, that just made it so easy for us, especially with them going first and taking that first one, it just takes the pressure off the team,” Rapinoe said. “She’s just been immense.”
The U.S. and the Netherlands were tied at 2 late in the game when Naeher smothered a penalty taken by Lieke Martens.
Then in the shootout, Naeher stopped Vivianne Miedema - the Olympics’ top scorer with 10 goals - with the opening attempt for the Dutch.
She stopped a second, this one taken by Aniek Nouwen, setting up Rapinoe’s penalty that sent the Americans into a semifinal match Monday against Canada.
Afterward, of course, Naeher credited her teammates.
“This team, we always believe we’re gonna find a way to win. And I think you saw that tonight. The way this team came together, kept fighting, playing for each other, pushing and pushing and pushing for 120 minutes,” she said. “And then to have those four step up and bury their four penalties. We won as a team. That was a true team effort.”
Asked if it was her best performance ever, Naeher deflected.
“I’ll leave that to you guys, I don’t know about any of that,” she said. “But, I’ve said from the beginning, I just want to help my team win a gold medal.”
Naeher is reserved almost to a fault. Although she‘s allowed goals in the Olympic tournament - notably in the 3-0 loss to Sweden in the opener - she embodies that goalkeeper talent to instantly forget mistakes.
While she doesn’t have the big personality of players such as, say Rapinoe, Naeher‘s teammates call her engaging and clever. She generally eschews social media. She‘s fond of crossword puzzles and she‘s a fan of the New England Patriots.
“She’s an amazing teammate, amazing human being. She’s so interesting. If you want to talk to her, she’ll talk to you for hours about anything,” teammate Lynn Williams said.
“But I think that calmness is what helps her and that’s what we saw. She had an incredible game, she kept us in the game. And I don’t know how she does it. I’m amazed.”
At the World Cup in France, Naeher smothered a penalty in the United States’ 2-1 semifinal win over England. It was the first-ever penalty save by a U.S. goalkeeper in regulation in soccer’s premier tournament.
With the United States clinging to its lead late in the game, a video review determined Becky Sauerbrunn had fouled England’s Ellen White in the penalty area. Naeher was there to envelope England captain Steph Houghton’s shot, helping ensure the U.S. would move on to the final.
The Americans won the title with a 2-0 victory over the Netherlands.
The save allowed Naeher to establish her own identity after taking over the national team job from outspoken predecessor Hope Solo.
Naeher has made 77 appearances with the national team since 2013, with 44 shutouts. Now 33, she has played professionally with the Chicago Red Stars in the National Women’s Soccer League since 2016.
She keeps her approach to penalties unsurprisingly simple.
“You just try to stay in the moment,” she said. “Focus on the ball. Take a couple of deep breaths and just let instincts take over.”
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