Alyssa Naeher was supposed to be the weakness. The Achilles heel. The insufficient Hope Solo replacement, the question mark, and so much more.
But on Tuesday, in the biggest game of her life, she was the hero. The player 22 teammates mobbed at the final whistle. They – the U.S. women’s national team – are headed to the 2019 World Cup final because of her.
Christen Press and Alex Morgan had given the U.S. a 2-1 lead over England. Naeher then saved an 84th-minute penalty to preserve it, and ultimately seal the semifinal win.
The Americans are now 90 minutes away from back-to-back world championships. One more ascent away from their sport’s mountaintop. On Sunday (11 a.m. ET, Fox), either Sweden or the Netherlands will stand between them and a fourth star. (Megan Rapinoe, who missed Tuesday’s game with a hamstring injury, expects to be ready.)
But first, they’ll savor a thriller – which, given context and narratives, included an all-time great World Cup moment.
U.S. gets another early goal
On Tuesday, the Americans did it again. For the sixth consecutive World Cup game – and seventh dating back to 2015 – they scored inside 12 minutes. Press, who started in place of the injured Rapinoe, needed less than 10 to break the deadlock.
This, though, was a brilliant team goal. Tobin Heath picked out Rose Lavelle in a pocket of space. Lavelle let the ball run through her legs into the path of Kelley O’Hara. O’Hara’s cross beat the English defense, and Press beat backup keeper Carly Telford:
CHRISTEN PRESS! ????
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) July 2, 2019
Lavelle created the goal without even touching the ball. And she did plenty else with it at her feet as well.
Rose Lavelle dazzled, and the U.S.
The U.S. was the better team in the first half, and the talisman was Lavelle. Three minutes into the game, she humiliated Millie Bright, danced into the box, and tested Telford.
Later in the half, she caught two 20-yard shots really well. Telford’s palms kept one out of the back of the net. An English defender’s forehead foiled the other.
Throughout the half, she glided past opponents in midfield, as she’s done all tournament. She was the most influential player on the field, even if her name won’t show up on the scoresheet – until she exited with what appeared to be a hamstring injury after an hour.
And the Americans, in part thanks to her excellence, were on top … until they weren’t.
England equalizes, and ascends
As it had done against France, the U.S. gradually began to sit back after the early goal. And it paid a price. It gave England’s Keira Walsh loads of space at the base of midfield to survey the field.
With neither Lindsey Horan nor Julie Ertz stepping up to pressure the ball, Walsh picked out Beth Mead on the left. Mead crossed for Ellen White, whose redirection pinged in off the post.
Before and after the equalizer, England found a foothold in the game. At 1-1, Walsh tested Naeher with a slicing drive. Naeher, not for the last time, was up to the task.
U.S. retakes the lead
The game swung again just after the half-hour mark – and again thanks to a superb team move.
Abby Dahlkemper bypassed England’s midfield with a pinpoint cross-field ball to Press. Press played to Horan, who clipped in a cross that Morgan powered home:
The vision was vintage Horan. The run and header, on her 30th birthday, were vintage Morgan. So was the celebration. The U.S. took the 2-1 lead into halftime.
U.S. hangs on thanks to Naeher and VAR
The second half was less eventful. But two events nearly brought England level again.
First, White thought she had. The ball was in the back of the net. The scoreboard read “2-2.” But replays showed that White was inches offside.
The video assistant referee notified the head referee, who correctly disallowed the goal.
Then, with 12 minutes remaining, VAR worked against the Americans. Fran Kirby, in as a second-half substitute, split the U.S. defense to find Demi Stokes. Stokes tapped a dribbling cross into the path of White, who looked like she’d surely score her seventh goal of the World Cup. Instead, she whiffed.
But that was because Becky Sauerbrunn clipped her heel as she tried to connect with the ball.
VAR spotted that, and the referee pointed to the spot. With Nikita Parris having missed two penalties earlier in the tournament, Steph Houghton stepped up.
Naeher, however, in the biggest of moments, came up even bigger. The oft-criticized keeper dove right and corralled Houghton’s penalty. Teammates sprinted toward her, their emotion and gratitude momentarily overriding the fact that they still had seven minutes to see out.
After England was reduced to 10 players by Millie Bright’s red card, they did just that. They held on for a third consecutive 2-1 victory. They did not dominate, but rode heroes new and old to the brink of glory. And they’ll be overflowing with confidence that yet more will arise on Sunday.
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