If you want to know what Alyssa Naeher is doing when she’s not stopping penalty kicks and ruining the World Cup and Olympic dreams of those who dare to challenge her, the answer almost invariably is a crossword puzzle. In those mishmashes of vocabulary and jargon, she can lose herself and set aside the staggering pressure of a job in which perfection is the only acceptable option for an organization so powerful victory has become the only reasonable outcome.
Naeher wasn’t perfect Friday, until she was magnificent. This is how sports sometimes can work: the player whose blunder brings defeat into the equation later making a heroic play that leads to victory. But rarely like this.
What Naeher did was like striking out twice with the bases loaded and then hitting three grand slams in the same game. It was like throwing two disastrous pick-sixes and then responding with three 80-yard touchdown passes.
Honestly, this might have been more extraordinary.
It would be wrong to say Naeher’s performance in the United States women’s national team’s quarterfinal victory over the Netherlands — clinched by a 4-2 advantage in a penalty shootout — ranked among the greatest in women’s soccer history. But it would be fair to declare her spectacular efforts on this night in Yokohama might have had a greater impact on major-tournament advancement than anyone to play her position.
Naeher was beaten twice on shots from distance, in the neighborhood of 18 yards, by 25-year-old Dutch striker Vivianne Miedema, who has scored so much in these Olympics she might be awarded the Golden Boot at Paris 2024 just to account for them all. The first of those was a sizzling strike into space opened by a misstep from defender Abby Dahlkemper and gave the Netherlands a 1-0 lead. Naeher was not at all to blame.
With the U.S. protecting a 2-1 lead in the 55th minute, however, Miedema shot again from nearly the same spot, only this time with far less authority. Naeher did not reach it in time, and the ball’s entry into the net tied the score.
She had looked uncomfortable against Sweden’s siege in the opening game of the Olympics, but here she looked deficient. And then, just when it seemed she was among the national team’s liabilities, she became the savior.
With the score still tied in the 80th minute, with precious little time for the USWNT to answer if it were to fall behind, right back Kelley O’Hara committed a needless, nonsensical foul against dangerous Dutch forward Lineth Beerensteyn directly in front of goal. It was an obvious penalty, which meant the Netherlands were 12 feet away from a goal that would almost surely advance them to the semifinals.
They sent up veteran midfielder Lieke Martens to take the kick. She tried to sneak the ball inside the right post, her preferred move, but Naeher appeared to be aware and leaped in front of the shot, deflecting it harmlessly to the left before scrambling to seize it.
“I think we just build off that energy,” USWNT midfielder Rose Lavelle told reporters afterward. “There’s no one else I’d rather have in the back of the net than her. She’s saved us in so many big games and come up big in such big moments. She deserves all the credit in the world. She’s the reason we’re still in this.”
The occasion was similar to the semifinals of the 2019 World Cup, although in that instance her penalty save against England’s Steph Houghton helped preserve a 2-1 lead in the 84th minute (below). The U.S. finished off that game, then defeated the Netherlands in the final to win a fourth world title.
This time, there still were 10 more minutes to play, and then 30 minutes of extra time in which the Americans pursued a winning goal and kinda/sorta scored it twice, although Christen Press was offside on one and Alex Morgan on another.
That stretch also included an awkward moment from Naeher in the 94th minute, another reason to doubt her, when a corner kick was deflected toward the crossbar and needed to be tapped over the goal and out of play. She appeared to mistime her jump and mishandle the ball, and then Martens arrived to head the ball into the net. What would have been the worst possible outcome, though, was erased because Beerensteyn was offside on the play.
“We‘re able to split up the minutes between a lot of people, and I think it’s helping,” USWNT winger Megan Rapinoe said. “We were able to get the best of them in the overtime. A couple of toenails offsides … and then covert the penalties. This team never really quits whether we’re playing like crap or playing great. We’re still going to go out there and play as hard as we can.”
Whether it was the confidence from the earlier penalty stop or just her natural state — the results in major events suggest the latter — Naeher ruled the shootout as if it were her own living room. Going first, the Netherlands opened with Miedema, and Naeher swallowed the shot. The Americans immediately grabbed the lead on a left-corner strike from Rose Lavelle. They remained perfect through two more rounds, with Morgan and Press rolling the ball into opposite corners to comfortably beat keeper Sari van Veenendaal.
The lead was 3-2 when Aniek Nouwen approached for a kick she could not afford to miss. Without success there, the Americans would have two shots at the clincher. Naeher practically caught her attempt. Rapinoe then powered the game-winner into the upper right corner.
“I could hear [my teammates] the whole time saying, ‘We’re with you,’ and that meant a lot,” Naeher told reporters. “I knew that they were right there with me. And I could feel their support and that energy from them. And I’m very grateful for that.
“I felt pretty good when I saw Meg coming up to take it. I think I told her to end it, and she did it.”
It was the kind of result that can mitigate a lot of mistakes and misgivings. Dahlkemper was better in this game, but her error on the first goal could have been decisive. So, too, the foolish foul by O’Hara. And at some point, the forwards must be disciplined enough to avoid being offside — there have been nine offside goals in this tournament — and the midfielders patient enough to assure their targets are legal.
But Andonovski’s decision to start Lynn Williams at forward turned out brilliantly, with her scoring the first goal on a brilliant chance she created for herself and then assisting on the Lindsey Horan header that gave the Americans a lead. And, as he pointed out, the four penalties in the shootout all were scored by players he had subbed into the game.
Above all, there was — what’s a six-letter word for brick wall, starts with an “N”? Oh, yes: Naeher. Statisically, only 17.5 percent of penalties are saved by goalkeepers. Some are missed because they are sent wide of the post or blasted over the bar. She needed no such assistance. She stopped 60 percent of the penalties sent her way.
“She’s been huge this whole tournament,” Rapinoe said. “Obviously, to take a penalty from them in the run of play is huge and then to give us two in the shootout, that made it so easy for us, especially with them going first. It takes the pressure off the team. She’s just been immense. She’s not a person of many words, especially to you guys. She probably never says anything to you guys. But she’s been absolutely huge for us.”