LYON, France — Throughout the Women’s World Cup, U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher faced skepticism on whether she could make a big save, especially with the game on the line.
With the Americans clinging to a one-goal lead in the 84th minute of the Women’s world Cup semifinal, Naeher answered those skeptics spectacularly on Tuesday. She made a diving stop to deny England captain Steph Houghton’s penalty kick to preserve the Americans’ 2-1 victory at Stade de Lyon.
Naeher, who inherited the starting job from the ultra-talented and controversial Hope Solo, was considered a solid but untested goalkeeper.
“She has been my No. 1,” head coach Jill Ellis said. “There is a theme of the tournament, ‘Dare to shine.’ So, I said to my players the other day, ‘We’re going to add to that, dare to shine the brightest.’ I said to her she shone tonight. She was the brightest.
“People are starting to see glimpses of what I see every day in training. She is making her own mark and creating her own legacy.”
The victory, before 53,512 spectators, boosted the defending champions into the final for a record third consecutive time and the fifth time in all eight Women’s World Cups. They will meet the winner of Wednesday’s semifinal between the Netherlands and Sweden for the title on Sunday.
The Americans can thank the 31-year-old Naeher.
“That’s a huge save,” midfielder Julie Ertz said. “It totally changed the feeling, the vibe, the energy level. I’ve seen Alyssa been in fantastic form the last few years and for the world to see it was huge.”
Naeher also produced a two-handed leaping save on Keira Walsh’s shot from distance in the 33rd minute.
After a goal by Ellen White was nullified due to an offside call as determined by the Video Assistant Referee in the 69th, the VAR set the stage for Naeher to grab the spotlight when it was ruled that center back Becky Sauerbrunn had fouled White in the box.
Houghton took the penalty and fired a shot to Naeher’s right that she read perfectly. She caught the ball and collapsed on it.
“Just try to get a good read on it,” Naeher said. “Get focused on the ball and kind of let instincts take over from there. It’s a feeling. You just try to be in the moment, be in the game, and just hopes it goes your way.”
The Americans played without captain Megan Rapinoe (hamstring strain), who had scored all four of the team’s knockout-round goals. “It’s feeling much better and I expect to be ready for the final,” she said.
Christen Press took her place and demonstrated the team’s depth again, heading home Kelley O’Hara’s right-wing cross from seven yards to the near post in the 10th-minute for her first World Cup goal. It was the sixth consecutive game that the USA had tallied in the opening 12 minutes.
“It’s crazy. It’s so, so emotional,” Press said. “What a team effort. For us to stay strong and composed and execute and make it to the finals is incredible. I have been honestly watching Carli Lloyd on headers, so I channeled my inner Carli Lloyd.”
England equalized behind White’s sixth goal in the 19th minute as she stuck her foot out to slip Beth Mead’s left-wing cross past Naeher.
Alex Morgan celebrated her 30th birthday as she headed in Lindsey Horan’s left-wing cross to snap the tie in the 31st minute, her first goal since striking for five in the opening win over Thailand. Many of the estimated 20,000 Americans in the crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to Morgan, who celebrated the goal by mimicking drinking tea.