YOKOHAMA, Japan — It was only afterward that Alyssa Naeher let down her guard. After she had dived to saved the penalty kick late in the game. After she had dived again to push aside the header in extra time. After she had turned away not one but two penalties in the shootout.
Naeher’s teammates count on her to do her job as well as they do theirs every time they take the field. Better than they do even, since their mistakes have a tendency to wind up in the back of her net. In the quarterfinals of the Olympic tournament on Friday, facing a dangerous Netherlands attack, that had already happened twice.
Now the United States needed Naeher to save them again. After the teams played a 2-2 tie, a penalty kick shootout would decide who would go to the semifinals, and who would go home. The Americans turned to Naeher. Save us, they said. Just like you have before.
“There’s no one else I’d rather have in the net than her,” midfielder Rose Lavelle said later. “She’s saved us so many times.”
And so Naeher, who had saved her teams in big games and small ones, in World Cups and friendlies, saved them again. She reached out an arm to stop the first penalty and then did it again to knock aside the fourth. She did not smile. She did not pump her fist. She did not celebrate. That is a role the Naeher leaves for others.
On Friday, Megan Rapinoe was happy to fill it. Granted a chance to win the game, she took it: striding to the penalty spot, placing the ball down, driving it into the top right corner for the winning goal.
“I just try to be calm,” Rapinoe said of her mentality in shootouts. “I say to myself, ‘The worst that’s going to happen is that we lose the whole thing.’”
The United States, its gold medal hopes revived, will play Canada on Monday in Kashima. Sweden, which beat Japan on Friday, and Australia, which stunned Britain’s Team G.B., will meet in the other semifinal.
The Americans will arrive at their next game with a newfound sense that maybe, just maybe, a tournament that started badly can end the way the Americans planned all along. And they will do so knowing that while Rapinoe had delivered the final blow, it was Naeher who had saved the day.
The game, played in an empty stadium so quiet that the few reporters and spectators inside could hear the players shouting out defensive assignments and words of encouragement, was a collision of two of the best women’s teams in the world, and a rematch of the 2019 Women’s World Cup final.
That game was also won by the Americans, with the aid of a Rapinoe penalty. But this summer it appeared the Netherlands would be positioned to take its revenge.
The United States had struggled in the group stage, humbled by Sweden in its opening game and frustrated by a defensive game plan in its third game against Australia, a dour scoreless tie that guaranteed advancement but did little to lift the team’s confidence.
A date with the Netherlands brought a daunting obstacle, but also a look-in-the-mirror moment for the Americans, who may have felt that their legacy and their primacy in women’s soccer — not to mention a berth in the semifinals — were on the line on Friday. The game was a test of the mettle and the famed “mentality” that they had talked all week about regaining. But it was also a test of their pride.
The Netherlands had been the highest-scoring team in the Olympic tournament, raining 21 goals in three group-stage games, and it took the lead on Friday through a quick-turn shot by its star striker, Vivianne Miedema. In that moment, a lesser team might have adopted a sense of resignation, that this was not, for once, its year.
But the United States, seemingly annoyed by surrendering a goal in a game it had dominated, quickly answered with goals three minutes apart by Sam Mewis and Lynn Williams.
Miedema scored her second early in the second half — her 10th goal of the tournament — and then the fight was really on. The Dutch pressed forward again and again, but the United States fought off one wave of attacks after another, thanks several times to acrobatic saves by Naeher, their quiet Connecticut-born goalkeeper.
Each team had goals scored and then called back for offside violations — a recurring theme for the Americans in a frustrating group stage — and each thought, at one point or another, it had the game won.
But without a goal, the game went to penalties, and that was where Naeher made all the difference.
She set the tone from the start, stopping Miedema on the first attempt with a dive to her right. Her teammates, sensing an opening, stepped up one after another and went for the kill. Lavelle. Alex Morgan. Christen Press.
When Naeher made her second stop, on Aniek Nouwen, with another dive to her right, it set the stage for Rapinoe. Everyone in the stadium, it seemed, knew what was coming next.
Granted a chance to win the game, to play the hero’s role that the camera-shy Naeher would almost certainly reject, Rapinoe grabbed it. Taking a deep breath, she drove a rising shot into the top right corner of the goal. When it hit the netting, she jumped in the air and landed firm on her feet, her arms across her chest, a smile on her face and with her team — now racing to swallow her in a hug — in the semifinals.
Naeher, watching nearby, reached down to grab her water bottle and jogged over to join the party. Her job done, she was, at last, smiling.
And it’s Rapinoe with another signature moment. She never loses her cool. She looked so loose stepping up to smash that shot where it couldn’t be saved. And when it hit net, she did a 180-degree hop, folded her arms, and stuck out her tongue, waiting for her teammates to swallow her up in hugs.
Some of the Dutch players are in tears. The Americans, after a round of hearty celebrating, are slowly making their way over to shake their hands. Naeher, in between hugs, exhales deeply. What a game it was for her.
It all comes down to… Who else? Megan Rapinoe. She takes a deep breath and smashes it into the roof of the net! She’s swarmed by her teammates as the U.S. wins the shootout, 4-2!
Aniek Nouwen, the third straight defender after Miedema is up. SAVED! NAEHER SAVES A SECOND! That keeps it at 3-2, and it can end here.
Christen Press shoots third and slots it coolly along the grass inside the left post. It’s 3-2, United States. You can hear the players screaming encouragement at one another.
Another defender, Stefanie van der Gragt, is third for the Netherlands. She SCORES! But oh goodness that was close: She dinged her shot off the post but it caromed in. It’s 2-2.
Kicking second for the United States is Alex Morgan. She SCORES! She takes a short run up to the ball and buries it low, into the right corner, sending the keeper the wrong way. The Americans are up, 2-1.
Defender Dominique Jansen goes second for the Netherlands. She SCORES, rolling a low kick to her right as Naeher dives the other way. It’s 1-1.
Up next to kick is Rose Lavelle, who jogs in confidently from the center circle. She then curls the ball nicely inside the left post. The U.S. goes ahead, 1-0!
Pre-shootout, both teams gather on the midfield stripe, knowing this will end in triumph or tears. The Netherlands’ Miedema, the top scorer in the Olympics with 10 goals, goes first against Naeher: SAVED! NAEHER SAVED IT, diving to her right!
New to soccer? Here’s what happens now.
Each coach will select five players — generally their steeliest, most trustworthy ones, which may not be the players you would choose or expect — and the teams will take turns from the penalty spot.
Miss or make. Win or lose. Strap in.
You can win a shootout early, if one team misses a few, or it can go on forever.
But one thing is clear: It’s an absolutely cruel way to settle a tie, and probably the worst one there is.
Except for all the other ideas you’ll hear.
FULL TIME. Three whistles from the ref, and it’s on to penalty kicks. The teams retreat to their sidelines for water, and to pick the penalty takers. Right about now is when you really notice the lack of a crowd.
119′ Everything’s flowing through Rapinoe right now on the left side. If the Americans snatch a late goal, she’ll provide the assist, I bet.
118′ Horan makes a crucial interception in the Americans’ half and blasts a beautiful through-ball the length of the field into the path of a galloping Rapinoe. Rapinoe tries to take the whole Dutch defense on, but she leans back and blasts her shot over the bar.
113′ MORGAN WINS IT——NOPE. Of course it’s offside. That’s nine offside goals for the United States this tournament, which means Disallowed Goal now feels like it’s threatening Abby Wambach and Mia Hamm in the U.S. record books.
109′ Another U.S. goal canceled out by an offside call! Megan Rapinoe pinged a diagonal cross from deep in midfield and dropped it onto the foot of Christen Press, who settled it cleanly and drove it smoothly into the net. But she was a step offside. That’s the eighth potential goal called offside for the United States in this tournament.
108′ Tired legs = loose passes = nervous moments. Both sides have had a couple gasps in extra time already.
106′ The Americans win a corner on the left side, but Rapinoe can only drive it low into a wall of Dutch defenders. It’s cleared, and on they go in search of a goal.
105′ There’s the whistle. So 15 minutes to get a goal. Or 15 minutes to penalties. Not sure either team wants it to come down to that.
105′ Press finds herself in front of goal, staring down a dangerous cross whipped from the left sideline. But she gets under it and bloops it over the crossbar with her head, a nice ball wasted.
103′ Naeher makes a beautiful safe for the U.S. to preserve the 2-2 scoreline. Miedema went airborne to win a header from close range. But Naeher went flying to her left to punch the dangerous shot away.
100′ Gold star for Julie Ertz, whose scrambling recovery smothers Miedema after another Horan giveaway.
99′ Rapinoe makes a dangerous dribbling run from the left side, shedding Wilms and van de Donk with a pair of nice moves, but she drags her shot just outside the near post!
99′ This bit where everyone stands around while a Netherlands defender looks for the best way to send a long ball to Miedema in probably not a game the United States wants to play. Pressure dies along with the legs, sometimes, but space is the Americans’ enemy right now.
96′ In the midst of a loooong VAR review here. So much riding on it.
94′ This time the offside goal saves the U.S. from disaster. A corner, a header off the crossbar that falls free and is knocked over the line past Naeher. But Martens appeared to be clearly offside.
92′ Horan makes a huge mistake giving up the ball in her own half. Van de Donk swipes it from her and gets it quickly to Miedema at the top of the box. The Americans get lucky when Miedema, so lethal this month, fires it straight at Naeher, who corrals it safely.
One of these teams will win tonight, and one will lose, and one might even go on to win the gold. But this game is about much more than that for both of them.
A Netherlands victory will reaffirm the Dutch as the world’s rising power, a team of lethal scoring threats and growing experience that could supplant the United States if it continues its trajectory. The Dutch won the European Championship in 2017 for the first time, played in the World Cup final two years later, and now have their eyes locked on Olympic gold.
A United States victory could push all of that back, again, and re-energize a program that seems to set the standard, and then meet every challenge in the nick of time. They may not be ready to surrender their dominant position just yet; tonight’s effort, if nothing else, showed that.
But a United States defeat, and a second straight medal-free Olympic trip, could mean something else entirely. Hard questions about the coaching and job security of Vlatko Andonovski. Tough ones about the futures of several top players. A loss could also have implications for the future of the game itself on the global stage, where many nations are rapidly closing the gap with infusions of club millions, and an empty throne could have many claimants.
That’s what we will learn about. But not until this night is over.
FULL TIME. Tweet! Tweet! Tweeeeeet! That Rapinoe free kick was the last chance. We’re going to extra time in Yokohama.
90+4′ Van de Donk wipes out O’Hara’s legs from underneath her, getting herself a yellow, and giving the U.S. a dangerous free kick from the left side. But Rapinoe sends it looping out of bounds for a goal kick.
90′ They announce five minutes of additional time, plenty of time for someone to snatch this win.
89′ Two of today’s quarterfinals went to extra time, and as we near 90 minutes in Yokohama you get the sense that’s where we are headed here, too. Let’s hope the late bus back to Tokyo is running ….
89′ Rapinoe wins a corner, but she sends the ensuing kick sailing over everybody’s heads. Things are getting tense now.
Every tournament run has a moment, that split-second where a single decision, a single action, can determine a team’s fate.
Alyssa Naeher’s penalty save might have been just that. And it’s not her first. She quietly saved her team’s World Cup title run several times in 2019 with big saves, most notably against England in the semifinals with a save a lot like that last one there against Lieke Martens.
Naeher is one of the quietest members of the United States team. You might not know much about her: She gives little away in interviews, and rarely smiles on the field until the game is over. In other words, a total pro.
But her teammates and her coach trust her implicitly. And she just showed why. Again.
81′ That was not a good penalty from Martens. She stood over the ball forever while waiting for the review. I wonder if that tightened her up. Regardless, she sent the ball, low and slow, toward Naeher’s left. Naeher guessed correctly and easily brushed the ball aside. That saved the tournament for the Americans.
81′ Lieke Martens will take it ….. VAR review ….. confirmed ….. SAVED!!! NAEHER!
80′ Kelley O’Hara took out Lineth Beerensteyn in the box to draw the whistle!
77′ Lindsey Horan gets the first yellow card of the game. She charges hard at a ball that’s sitting at the feet of Danielle van de Donk and takes a huge chunk of the Dutch player’s foot with her slide tackle. Looked painful. That’s the first booking of the night.
77′ With Rapinoe and Lavelle in the game, the U.S. now has both goal-scorers on the field who helped secure the team’s victory over the Netherlands in the 2019 World Cup final.
70′ Andonovski was just waving his players forward a minute ago after a clearance. He wants them out of their own end, clearly. But he probably wants pressure of the field when they clear the ball out, too, to keep it out.