Alyssa Naeher emerges from Hope Solo’s shadow with smashing save

LYON, France — Alyssa Naeher finally escaped Hope Solo’s shadow with her smothering save of a penalty kick.

Often compared to her predecessor on the U.S. national team, Naeher cemented her own legacy when she preserved the United States’ 2-1 semifinal win over England. It was the first penalty save by a U.S. goalkeeper in regulation at the Women’s World Cup.

“Oh my God, Alyssa played absolutely out of her mind, but that is what she does day in and day out,” said defender Kelley O’Hara, a Stanford alum. “I’m proud the world finally got to see that. She proved she’s the best in the world, surely.”

Naeher has been peppered with questions about Solo in the run-up to the tournament and all through the team’s journey through France. She has been gracious about answering each and every time — even right after Tuesday night’s match.

“I don’t get wrapped up in the comparisons. I’ve said from the beginning that I just try to be me. My goal every day is just being a better person, better player than I was yesterday,” she said. “It’s not about comparisons, it’s how can I help this team win now in 2019? How can I help this team win a gold medal? That’s my only focus.”

It has been this way since Naeher emerged as the presumptive starter following Solo’s dismissal from the team.

Solo made 202 appearances with the national team with 153 wins and an international-record 102 shutouts. During the 2015 World Cup championship run, she allowed just three goals in seven games with five shutouts. She won two consecutive Golden Glove awards for best goalkeeper.

She also created distractions and her contract with the team was terminated after she called Sweden “cowards” for bunkering on defense in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Olympics.

Naeher has shut out the naysayers by doing her job. Known for being soft-spoken and unshakable, she does crosswords on game days to relax. She made her debut with the senior national team in 2014 and now has 52 international caps with 28 shutouts.

She was solid from the start in France. The United States did not concede a goal in the group stage for the first time at a World Cup. Her defining moment came in the 84th minute against England on Tuesday night.

“I don’t really remember, to be honest,” she said about the save. “You just try to stay focused. Take a few deep breaths, focus in. I just tried to let instincts take over at that point. Tried to get a jump on it, tried to make a good read, hoped to make a save. And I did it.”

Calm and steady even on her biggest night, on the sport’s biggest stage. “To come up big in that moment, for her personally, but also for the team, it’s massive,” midfielder Megan Rapinoe said. “It can’t be overstated.”

Ratings: The Americans’ victory over England averaged nearly 8 million U.S. viewers on English- and Spanish-language television. The match averaged 7.025 million viewers on Fox, according to the network and Nielsen, and peaked at more than 9 million late in the match. It was the most-watched English-language soccer telecast in the country since last year’s men’s World Cup final.

Anne M. Peterson is an Associated Press writer.

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