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Alyssa Naeher is the quiet hero the USWNT needed against England

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Criticism of Naeher became all too common during this World Cup, but she came up big against England when it mattered most.

England v USA: Semi Final - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

In nearly every mixed zone and press conference and media availability, those in attendance ask USWNT players about Alyssa Naeher. Do you have faith in her? What is the communication like with her? How do you feel having her behind you?

Those questions are likely to decrease significantly after the World Cup semifinal against England, which saw the United States advance to the final after holding through seven agonizing minutes of stoppage to earn a nervy 2–1 victory. Naeher’s teammates showed exactly how they feel about her, running to her en masse immediately after the whistle blew.

Her stone-faced block on Steph Houghton’s attempt from the spot after a VAR foul call on Becky Sauerbrunn turned Naeher into the hero of the match. It was late in the game, and England had already had one goal called back for a very tight offside. Converting the spot kick would put them level again, the soccer gods seemingly trying to make up for squashing the Lionness’ celebration upon believing themselves level at 2–2 the first time around. But what VAR giveth, Naeher taketh away.

“She saved our ass in that moment,” Alex Morgan says rather succinctly in the mixed zone after the game.

“We all had so much faith in her,” says Rose Lavelle. “We see what she does in practice every day. She saves our own penalties, to our frustration, but we had a lot of faith in her and she came up huge for us.”

“Holy shit!” says Megan Rapinoe. “That was, I mean, just a fucking huge moment. I didn’t even move. I was so stressed out.”

Naeher herself seems neither especially ebullient nor particularly dour after the game — just even-keeled. “Just try to get a good read on it,” she says of her technique on the penalty. “Try to just take a few deep breaths, get focused on the ball, focused on the play, and kind of let instincts take over from there.”

Naeher promptly follows her remark by expending more words praising her teammates than she did talking about her tremendous, tournament-saving stop, which is typical for her. “Just to get a save in the 80th minute, whatever it was,” she says. “Just be able to play my role, play my part to help this team advance to the gold medal game, is huge. It takes all 23 of us. It’s a special team. Everybody fought hard tonight for all 90 minutes.”

That penalty, had it gone in, might have given England the momentum to pull ahead, instead of feeling stuck on the back foot. England coach Phil Neville called the second goal against them, a nice piece of work from Morgan and Lindsey Horan, “soft,” but it did the job in sealing England’s fate — though given Abby Dahlkemper looked vulnerable, and Sauerbrunn encountered a dash of bad luck, it was Naeher who truly won the game. It certainly changed the way the United States reacted to the final minutes, with Jill Ellis confidently subbing on Ali Krieger to defend the lead rather than pondering who she wanted on the field during extra time, or — God forbid — a penalty shootout.

In the moments right after the save, Naeher’s teammates mobbed her, congratulating her, expressing their relief and joy. Naeher could be seen gently pushing them off, encouraging them to get on with the game. “Well I didn’t want to get called for eight seconds. I wasn’t sure what the ref was going to do,” Naeher says, referring to the rule on delay of game.

That’s the mentality we’ve come to expect of someone dubbed “uncle” by her teammates in Chicago for being the steady one, the person you call for small home repairs. And to a certain extent, it keeps Naeher flying under the radar, particularly as she’s playing in the shadow of one of the greatest giants of the game, Hope Solo. But against England, she became the story.

At the postgame press conference, Ellis reveals she’s been using the World Cup motto, “Dare to shine,” to motivate her players. “She shone tonight, she was the brightest,” Ellis says of her number-one goalkeeper, something that will no doubt discomfit Naeher herself. Fortunately, she has more extroverted teammates to talk up her game for her.

Rapinoe has no trouble discussing the critical attention that has followed Naeher since the tournament began. “Obviously she has a particular person that she’s following that had so much attention on her,” Rapinoe says. “And I feel like she hasn’t really had moments like these to come into herself. She’s an incredible goalkeeper. She’s so steady for us back there and for her to have this moment, for her personally, I think is, it’s just so special.”

Rapinoe may be right that Naeher deserves the spotlight for once, but in Sauerbrunn’s eyes, the stop changes nothing, at least not in how the USWNT regards her. “I don’t think she needed to have a big moment for us to know how good she is,” Sauerbrunn says. “Maybe for everyone else she needed that moment, but we knew what she was capable of and now the world knows what she’s capable of.” Possibly Naeher’s teammates are sick of having to defend her to the fans and to the press. Possibly they just know that no amount of dissecting her game is going to change the fact that she is the starting goalkeeper for the United States in this World Cup. For them, she’s just Alyssa, who had a good game and won’t be making a big deal out of it.

“She’ll probably get on the bus and do a crossword and get ready for the next game,” says Sauerbrunn.

Naeher grins when asked if a game-saving penalty stop in a World Cup semifinal was the biggest save of her life. “It’s probably up there,” she says, then deflects attention away from herself once more.