Naeher avoids the spotlight but becomes a star

TOKYO — For nearly a decade the United States women’s soccer team was anchored by Hope Solo and her brash, confident, occasionally controversial and mostly impossible-to-ignore persona.

Solo didn’t mind speaking her mind, whether it was good for the team or not. She didn’t mind being the center of attention. She was more than comfortable with the spotlight on her, almost regardless of the reason.

She was about as big of a star as this star-studded team has ever had — she earned it with her play and then powered it with her personality.

By 2016, all of that had imploded. Too many comments. Too much controversy. Right or wrong, U.S. soccer was done with her, suspending her and terminating her contract after she dubbed Sweden “a bunch of cowards” for its style of play in a quarterfinal Olympic loss. And that was just the trigger point.

She won the U.S. a lot of games and a lot of trophies, but the organization was ready for something new.

It turned out to be Alyssa Naeher.

“She’s not a person of many words,” Megan Rapinoe said of her goalie. “Especially to [the media]. She probably never says anything to you guys, but she’s been amazing to us.”

Never more so than on a dark, humid night inside an empty, cavernous stadium here at the Olympics.

Yokohama, Japan, Friday, July 30, 2021 - Team United States goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher (1) makes a save on the Team Netherlands forward Vivianne Miedema (9), the first of two saves in a shootout victory over Netherlands in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Womens Football Quarterfinal at International Stadium Yokohama. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
United States goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher makes a save against the Netherlands and Vivianne Miedema, the first of two in a shootout victory over the Netherlands in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The U.S. quarterfinal match with the Netherlands was tied at two and headed to a shootout after 120 hard-fought minutes. And here was Naeher, despite so much previous success, perhaps finally stamping herself as an American legend in net in her own right.

The 33-year-old from Connecticut calmly made an incredible sprawling save on Vivianne Miedema on the Netherlands’ first attempt to give the Americans the early edge. She then stopped Aniek Nouwen in the fourth round.

With all three Americans scoring on their attempts, it set up Rapinoe to clinch the shootout early.

“End it,” Naeher said to Rapinoe.

“She did,” Naeher said.

Rapinoe was the first to say the only reason she was in position to win the shootout, 4-2, and send the Americans into a semifinal match against Canada (4 a.m. ET Monday) was because of Naeher.

“She’s just been immense,” Rapinoe said. “To give us two in the shootout made it so easy for us. Especially with them going first. Taking that first one, it takes the pressure off the team.”

It wasn’t just the shootout heroics, either. There were a slew of brilliant saves throughout, none bigger than the stoning of Netherland star Lieke Martens on an 80th-minute penalty kick. Martens tried to tuck it low and inside the right post, but Naeher stretched and denied it.

If not, this night — and this tournament — could have been over early for the US.

“That’s just absolutely ridiculous,” said Alex Morgan, who also converted in the shootout. “She’s out of this world.”

Even after an emotional knockout-round game, and even after the exhilaration of an all-time great performance, Naeher came off the field and spoke in a relaxed, casual manner as if not much had happened.

She brushed off suggestions from the media that this was the finest game of her career.

“‘I’ll leave that for you guys,” Naeher said.”I don’t know about any of that.”

She was eager to spread the praise and credit to everyone else.

“I’ve said from the beginning, I just want to help my team win a gold medal,” she said. “And tonight I’m proud of what I was able to do to get us one step closer to that goal. … We won tonight as a team. That was a true team effort and team win.”

Her teammates say she has a big personality. “She’s so interesting,” forward Lynn Williams said. “She will talk to you for hours about anything.”

Yokohama, Japan, Friday, July 30, 2021 - USA teammates rush to congratulate Megan Rapino and Team  goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher (1) after a shootout victory over Netherlands in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Womens Football Quarterfinal at International Stadium Yokohama. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
USA teammates rush to congratulate Megan Rapino and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher after a shootout victory over the Netherlands in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

It’s just she just doesn’t show it to the media — traditional (no one at U.S. Soccer is worried about what she might say, let alone about who she might say it to) or social (she’s posted just 15 times on Instagram this year, and none since getting to Japan). She’s a pro’s pro, but she isn’t into self-promotion.

This isn’t a knock on Solo, who rightfully capitalized on her ability to the tune of TV commercials and books and magazine covers.

This is just a different kind of netminder.

“That calmness helps her,” Williams theorized.

You can’t argue with the growing body of results. Naeher was dominant in leading the U.S. to the 2019 World Cup, conceding just three goals across seven games. Now she’s a main part of the Americans trying to become the first team to follow up a World Cup with an Olympic gold.

They are two games away, and they have the understated goaltender to thank for it.

“Very proud of the group,” Naeher said.

Of course.

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