Save the day and move on: That's Alyssa Naeher in a nutshell
LYON, France -- The reactions around her said so much. Alyssa Naeher's lack of one said even more.
In the 84th minute of a World Cup semifinal, Naeher dove to her right and saved a penalty kick off the foot of England's Steph Houghton without allowing a rebound.
One England player held her hands on her head in disbelief. Another squeezed the bridge of her nose. Houghton sought stoicism but couldn't suppress a wince.
On the other side of the scale, Americans Alex Morgan and Kelley O'Hara were the first of a swarm of teammates to reach Naeher at full sprint. World Cup winners themselves four years ago, Morgan and O'Hara engulfed her in grateful congratulations as the clock ticked on. Naeher had just preserved a 2-1 lead for the United States.
Without so much as a grin, barely even making eye contact, the goalkeeper pushed them back. She motioned for them to get back to the game so she could restart play without risking further sanction from the referee. Not long after, the time ran out and the U.S. was headed back to the final.
"From the beginning, my teammates have always had my back," Naeher said afterward. "We always play for each other. They've always had mine, I've always had theirs."
Everyone around her emoting. Everyone around her opining. Naeher just getting on with it.
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Getting on with it is what she has done for three years since taking over from Hope Solo as the No. 1 goalkeeper on the world's top-ranked team. Three years that nonetheless couldn't answer if she would keep doing it when the one moment on Tuesday arrived. The one moment that might possibly convince people to stop talking about who Naeher isn't and understand who she is.
"She has a particular person that she's following that had so much attention on her," teammate Megan Rapinoe said after the win. "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. For her to have this moment, for her personally, it's just so special."
Naeher, of course, didn't ask to be anyone's successor. She just plays a position as brutally competitive as any in sports. We may not call U.S. forward Christen Press a starter, but she's still going to play regular minutes as a substitute and start from time to time, as she did to great effect against England. A goalkeeper doesn't get the luxury. Barring complete disaster or the kind of injury that forced England to change starters Tuesday, goalkeeper is the airplane bathroom of positions. Trying to accommodate more than one person serves no one well.
So despite being part of the U.S. team during both the 2015 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, Naeher left those most recent Olympics in Brazil as a 28-year-old with just seven career appearances for her country.
Put another way, Mallory Pugh, 21, still barely old enough to buy a bottle of champagne, had more major tournament appearances than Naeher entering this World Cup.
Solo had started every World Cup or Olympic game for the U.S. since she was benched for a 2007 World Cup semifinal. Either Solo or Briana Scurry had started every such game for the U.S. since the 2000 Olympics -- just a year after an 11-year-old Naeher and her family got in their car in Connecticut and drove to New York to watch Scurry and the U.S. in person during the 1999 World Cup.
The same excellence that made American World Cup goalkeepers as exclusive a club as living presidents left no proven heir when U.S. Soccer parted ways with Solo after her post-Olympics suspension. Naeher wasn't next in line. She was just next.
"She's incredibly talented," Scurry said this spring. "She has a great athletic ability, and she's very good with her feet. The only question I would have is how is she going to perform when it's really stressful? We don't know that, right? So we've seen her in league play, and we've seen her in SheBelieves Cup and other tournaments.
"But subconsciously you know that you're not in a World Cup, and you know that you're not in the Olympic Games."
Perhaps the first indication that Naeher was up to the challenge is how little we heard from her over the past three years. Solo was loudly iconoclastic. Naeher is quietly unifying. Press talked about the goalkeeper this week as one of her closest friends. Earlier in the tournament, Carli Lloyd, to whom "loner" is hardly a pejorative, talked about how much the goalkeeper opens up in one-on-one settings. Naeher's own social media feeds contain few selfies that don't also include family or friends. And she's the kind of person who seems to show up again and again in teammates' off-field pictures. She's quietly comfortable being in the crowd, not the center of attention.
She never tried to be Solo. Or Scurry, for that matter. She's merely playing the same position.
"Both confident but in very different ways and they show it in very different ways," Press said this week of Naeher and Solo. "Both hugely talented but different strengths."
The important question for this World Cup was never whether you would rather have Solo or Naeher in goal. It is the nature of our memories that the passage of time enhances greatness. Solo was the best who ever played the position, but we also remember the best of her moments and mistake it for the entirety of her work. The question that mattered this World Cup was: Which active goalkeeper would you rather have instead of Naeher?
There were reasonable answers before Tuesday night. There still are. But there is no incontrovertible answer.
"I don't think she needed to have a big moment for us to know how good she is," Becky Sauerbrunn said after Naeher erased the veteran defender's VAR-decided penalty. "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."
At about the same time that the U.S. team launched a new golden era with its heroics in the 2011 World Cup in Germany, an era that now continues with a third consecutive World Cup final, Naeher arrived in that country to begin a professional stint with the club team Turbine Potsdam. She wasn't part of the national team picture yet, still three years away from her first cap. She lived on her own in Germany. She went about her work in a different culture with a different language. She struggled to figure out things like grocery shopping and banking. It was all, in her words, overwhelming at times. It was also instrumental in her development -- instrumental in her story.
And that's the thing. Naeher wasn't in suspended animation while waiting for a job to open with the U.S. She lived a soccer life, from Potsdam to Chicago. She made great saves and let in howlers. She was brilliant in defeat and lucky in victory. She even watched major tournaments unfold from the inside. She grew comfortable as herself.
There was only one thing she hadn't done.
"When you're playing a World Cup or an Olympic tournament, it's not every game where the goalkeeper is going to be called upon," Scurry said. "But there will be several moments, either in a half or in one particular game -- and it may not even be the final -- where that goalkeeper is going to have to take that team and put them on her shoulders. That's not just about athletic ability. That's not just about skill. ... That's mental part of the game that you don't know about a goalkeeper until you're baptized in a situation."
That moment arrived as Houghton stepped to the penalty spot. No U.S. goalkeeper had ever faced quite the same situation, not with a penalty awarded by VAR and not with that same video system tracking her to make sure she kept one foot on the line until Houghton struck the ball (unlike, say, Scurry straying several yards off the line to make her famous save in the penalty shootout against China in the 1999 final).
She had her moment. And then she got on with being Alyssa Naeher.
"She's going to do what she does because she's Alyssa," Sauerbrunn said. "That's how she rolls. So she'll probably get on the bus and do a crossword and get ready for the next game."
Even if the next game just happens to be for the World Cup.