Naeher was the heroine for USA in their quarter-final against the Netherlands
Rapinoe also ice-cool in penalty shoot-out
USA star: “What’s the worst that can happen?”
“Was that the best game of your career?”
The journalist’s question for Alyssa Naeher was as expected as it was justified. The USA goalkeeper had, after all, saved a penalty from Dutch forward Lieke Martens just before the end of normal time with the score at 2-2. She went one better around half an hour later when she kept out efforts from Aniek Nouwen and Vivianne Miedema in the shootout. Naeher’s answer was equally unsurprising. “I’ll leave that to you guys,” she said succinctly, smiling sheepishly. The brevity of her reply was likewise nothing new: “She’s not a person of many words,” said Megan Rapinoe, scorer of the decisive penalty for USA, shortly beforehand, before hailing the importance of the goalkeeper. “She’s been huge for us this whole tournament,” the California native continued. “She made a bunch of unbelievable saves. To save a penalty from them in normal time is huge. To then give us two in the shootout took the pressure off all the penalty takers. That’s immense. It gave us all a ton of confidence.”
Rapinoe gave no indication of any pressure with the emphatic manner of her penalty to make it 4-2. Was that a result of Naeher’s stops? “I just try to be calm,” she said, adding with a smile: “I just say to myself ‘what’s the worst that can happen? Ok, you could lose the whole thing, you could lose the Olympics for your country, but other than that?’” The 36-year-old, who came off the bench after approximately an hour, had a big impact on the left wing. “That’s kind of our strength the whole time, that we’ve got such a deep squad. It’s a tough tournament, tough conditions.”
Indeed, Rapinoe was one of four substitutes, with head coach Vlatko Andonovski swapping out his entire three-pronged attack. “We know we’ll play anyway, even if we don’t start,” she said. “We were closer to winning in extra time.”
As true as that may be, it would not even have been possible without Naeher’s first heroic moment nine minutes before full time.
“I’ve said from the beginning I want to help my team to win a gold medal,” said the goalkeeper, who is her country’s No1 for the first time ever at a Women’s Olympic Football Tournament. “Tonight I’m proud of what I was able to do to get us one step closer."
But how do you manage to save three penalties in one game? “I just try to stay in the moment, focus on the ball, take a couple of deep breaths and let my instincts take over,” said the 33-year-old. “I could hear my team-mates cheering me on the whole time too. I could feel their support and energy.
“The first penalty is obviously very important as it sets the tone for the shootout.” The fact that Naeher saved Miedema’s effort first up may have sown a seed of doubt in the Dutch players that it would not be their night at the imposing International Stadium Yokohama. After all, Miedema had been seemingly unstoppable at the tournament, scoring ten goals, including putting two past Naeher in normal time. “I was very confident in the five takers we have and I really wanted to save one,” added the Chicago Red Stars custodian. “But I was even able to get to two. I felt pretty good when I saw Megan coming up to take the decisive penalty. I told her to end it, and she did.” The final word obviously belonged to Rapinoe herself: “Yeah, I just thought: ‘Step up, be confident. Just end it.”