LYON, France — No one really knew Alyssa Naeher before the World Cup, and she was fine with that.
But things are different now. Naeher made a save — a big save — to send the United States to a World Cup final against Netherlands.
“She saved our asses,” Alex Morgan said after Naeher stopped a penalty kick to ensure victory over England in Tuesday’s semifinal.
The top 10 trending Twitter topics in the U.S. during the match included “Alyssa Naeher.” And Naeher, not goalscorers Morgan and Christen Press, dominated headlines in the days following the game.
After constant criticism and questions about her confidence and ability in big moments, Naeher proved herself. But her reaction after the match wasn’t one of validation. Instead, she presented the same calm, focused expression she has every day since the tournament began.
“I was just happy to be able to play my part. That was my goal coming into this tournament: ‘How can I help this team win in 2019?’ I got the opportunity to do that,” Naeher said.
Ever since Naeher took over for Hope Solo in 2016, she’s been one of the most maligned players on the team. Maybe it was because she’s soft spoken. Or because she replaced a brash personality who held the starting role for 11 years and was the best goalkeeper in program history.
Maybe because Solo and her predecessor, Briana Scurry, both questioned Naeher’s ability to step up in big moments and make the type of saves they both did to lead the U.S. to World Cup titles.
Naeher’s teammates never did.
“People are constantly trying to say something negative, or her constantly living in the shadow of Hope Solo. I’ll tell you what, that’s a damn good goalkeeper in there that doesn’t get enough credit,” backup goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris said after the England match. “And she showed up this tournament, time and time again for this team. And I hope it silenced a lot of people.
“Just because she’s not about all the hype, doesn’t mean she’s not up for the challenge.”
This is what we know about Naeher: She’s quiet and reserved, but not a loner. She prefers to listen but will speak up when she feels it necessary.
“Just because I’m quiet doesn’t mean I don’t have things to say. I just pick and choose when the moment’s right,” she said. “I don’t get wrapped up in the comparisons. I said from the beginning that I just try to be me.”
Often when she does join a conversation, it’s with funny or witty comments. She likes crosswords and sits in the back of the U.S. Soccer bus with Carli Lloyd.
“She’s just a great human being,” Lloyd said.
She has a large and supportive family.
Naeher is especially close with her twin sister, who is in France supporting her during the World Cup. Naeher’s parents also are at the tournament. Her younger sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew just left, and her cousins and their little one just arrived.
Spotting them all in the stands is easy, even when there were more than 50,000 people in the stands during the semifinal against England.
“They’re always wearing my jersey, so it’s easy to spot the green,” Naeher said with a smile.
And she works.
A Penn State grad from Connecticut, Naeher has played professionally in the U.S. and Germany. She made her first national team appearance in 2014 and toiled as a backup keeper for years before making her big tournament debut as the starting keeper last month at 31 years old. She’s made 12 saves so far in the World Cup.
She earned her teammates’ respect long before that, though, by taking extra reps during training sessions and keeping a cool head through more than two years of media, fans and former players calling her the weak link.
“She’s been my No. 1,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said with validation after the England match. “She’s a tremendous person. People care about her. People have her back. I think people are just starting to see glimpses of what I see in training every day in terms of her capabilities. I think she’s making her own mark and creating her own legacy, and I think that’s fantastic.”
What that legacy will be largely depends on what happens Sunday night.