Survive and advance: USWNT reaches Olympic semi-finals after gritty win over Netherlands on penalties

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Survive and advance. That is the mantra in any knockout tournament and it was undoubtedly personified by the U.S. women’s national team on Friday.

The USWNT battled through 120 minutes of their Olympic quarter-final against the Netherlands, managing to stay alive and take the game to penalties after a 2-2 draw.

In the spot-kick period, Alyssa Naeher cemented her status as a USWNT goalkeeping legend by saving two penalties after she had already stopped a late penalty in regulation.

Meanwhile, the USWNT takers went four-for-four to see their team through to the semi-finals, where they will face regional rivals Canada.

It wasn’t a dominating performance for the U.S. but it was also much improved after a lackluster group stage saw their status as tournament favorites thrown into doubt.

The group stage is now a distant memory though, and although they have yet to show their best in Japan, the USWNT is now just two wins away from Olympic gold. 

Here are three observations from the USWNT’s huge win over the Dutch. 

Williams makes her chance count

Lynn Williams narrowly missed the 2019 World Cup roster and it appeared she had narrowly missed the chance to play at this Olympics as well when she was named an alternate ahead of the tournament.

But a late rule change gave alternates the chance to be eligible for gameday rosters, offering Williams a glimmer of hope. Through the group stage, though, Williams had made just one brief cameo off the bench.

Lynn Williams USWNT GFX

It was a major surprise then, when U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski gave Williams the start against the Dutch, with Megan Rapinoe and Christen Press relegated to the bench. It didn’t take long for Williams to make her coach look like Nostradamus.

Williams nearly grabbed an assist when Lindsey Horan’s header off her cross was well saved by Sari van Veenendaal, before she got a first-half assist for Sam Mewis on another header. Just minutes later, Williams arrowed a perfect finish into the bottom corner after a scramble from a corner kick.

Andonovski did undo some of his good work when he prematurely removed Williams in the 57th minute as part of a triple sub. The move appeared to be pre-planned and not the result of anything happening on the field, with the USWNT hardly on the ropes and looking in need of a major reorganization.

Still, Williams vindicated Andonovski's decision to put her in the spotlight, and she may be in line for another start against Canada.

USWNT shows mental toughness 

When the U.S. went down a goal against Sweden in their tournament opener, they appeared shell-shocked. On Friday, their response to an early setback could not have been more different. 

Vivianne Miedema scored a brilliant opener for the Dutch against the run of play but rather than cower, the USWNT kept up the pressure and eventually got their reward.

Mentally, this was an entirely different team to the one we saw in the group stage. The U.S. pressed the Dutch at every turn in the first half, imposing their will on the game in a way they hadn’t done yet in the Olympics. 

Miedema again scored in the second half in a blow to the U.S. and from there the game descended into a slog that was highlighted by tired legs and minds. 

But when penalties arrived, the USWNT overcame any lingering issues and executed to perfection. Rapinoe, who had struggled to make an impact off the bench, slammed her decisive spot kick into the top corner with the confidence of a player who’d been dominating the game.

Naeher cements legend status from the spot

As dominant as the USWNT were at the 2019 World Cup, there was a moment in the semi-finals when Alyssa Naeher had to save them. 

England were given a late penalty kick with the chance to draw level, only for Naeher to save from Steph Houghton’s spot kick and send the U.S. to the final.

On Friday, Naeher repeated the trick late in regulation but this time, the game was tied and the U.S. were staring down elimination if Lieke Martens converted from the spot.

But Naeher again saved her team, diving low to her left to keep Martens from giving the Dutch the lead with just 10 minutes to play.

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In the shootout, Naeher again proved heroic by saving Miedema’s opening penalty and later keeping Aniek Nouwen’s spot kick out. 

Naeher probably should have done better on Miedema’s second goal in regulation but she more than made up for it with her penalty heroics. When the USWNT needs their keeper to come up big from the spot, Naeher has shown repeatedly that she is up to the task.

For more on the USWNT's chances at the Olympics and to hear from guests such as Hope Solo, subscribe to Goal's new podcast, 'All Of Us: The U.S. Women's Soccer Show', wherever you listen to your podcasts.