LYON, France (AP) — Alyssa Naeher finally escaped Hope Solo’s shadow with her smothering save of a penalty kick.
Endlessly compared to her controversial predecessor on the U.S. national team, Naeher cemented her own legacy when she preserved the United States’ 2-1 semifinal win over England. It was the first-ever penalty save by a U.S. goalkeeper in regulation at the Women’s World Cup.
“Oh my God, Alyssa played absolutely out of her mind, but that is what she does day in and day out,” defender Kelley O’Hara said. “I’m proud the world finally got to see that. She proved she’s the best in the world, surely.”
Naeher has been peppered with questions about Solo in the run-up to the tournament and all through the team’s journey through France. She’s been gracious about answering each and every time — even right after Tuesday night’s match.
“I don’t get wrapped up in the comparisons. I’ve said from the beginning that I just try to be me. My goal every day is just being a better person, better player than I was yesterday,” she said. “It’s not about comparisons, it’s how can I help this team win now in 2019? How can I help this team win a gold medal? That’s my only focus.”
It’s been this way since Naeher emerged as the presumptive starter following Solo’s dismissal from the team.
Solo made 202 appearances with the national team with 153 wins and an international-record 102 shutouts. During the 2015 World Cup championship run, she allowed just three goals in seven games with five shutouts. She won two consecutive Golden Glove awards for best goalkeeper.
But she also created controversy and her contract with the team was ultimately terminated after she infamously called Sweden “cowards” for bunkering on defense in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Olympics.
Naeher assumed Solo’s role in the ensuing years, but some criticized U.S. Soccer for relying too heavily on Solo without developing a strong successor.
Naeher has shut out the naysayers by humbly doing her job. Known for being soft-spoken and unshakeable, she does crosswords on game days to relax. She made her debut with the senior national team in 2014 and now has 52 international caps with 28 shutouts.
She was solid from the start in France. The United States did not concede a goal in the group stage for the first time at a World Cup. Indeed, until Spain’s Jennifer Hermoso scored on the United States to open the knockout round, the United States had not allowed a goal since an April friendly against Australia.
But her defining moment came in the 84th minute against England on Tuesday night.
With the United States clinging to its 2-1 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 Sunday’s championship game.
“I don’t really remember, to be honest,” she said about the save. “You just try to stay focused. Take a few deep breaths, focus in. I just tried to let instincts take over at that point. Tried to get a jump on it, tried to make a good read, hoped to make a save. And I did it.”
Naeher’s twin sister Amanda and parents celebrated wildly in the seats at the Stade de Lyon, while on the field Naeher urged her teammates to focus for the final minutes.
Calm and steady even on her biggest night, on the sport’s biggest stage.
“To come up big in that moment, for her personally, but also for the team, it’s massive,” midfielder Megan Rapinoe said. “It can’t be overstated.”
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