A new hero rises! Naeher shakes off the critics to earn her place in USWNT lore

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Philippe DESMAZES
The USWNT goalkeeper was the hero against England in the World Cup semifinal, as her late penalty save saw the U.S. reach the final

She has been criticized. She has been questioned. She has been compared unfavorably to her predecessors.  

But on Tuesday night, Alyssa Naeher became a U.S. women’s national team hero.  

The U.S. goalkeeper made a massive fingertip save in the first half to deny a long-range strike from Keira Walsh in what was her best moment of the World Cup thus far. 

But Naeher most certainly saved her best for last.  

The USWNT and Naeher had been saved once by VAR, the video assistant having ruled out an Ellen White goal that seemed to be the leveler.  

But VAR then awarded England a penalty with just five minutes remaining in the World Cup semifinal in Lyon, handing the Lionesses a chance to tie the game from the spot as the USWNT clung to a 2-1 lead.  

It was a moment the U.S. needed their goalkeeper to step up, and Naeher certainly obliged. 

Naeher produced a sprawling save to her right to deny Steph Houghton, coming up with the moment she’s been hoping for the entire World Cup.  

"I don’t really remember to be honest," Naeher said of her save. "I just tried to let instincts take over at that point and just try to get a good jump on it, get a good read and hope to make a save."

Alyssa Naeher USWNT USA England Women's World Cup 2019

Alyssa Naeher USWNT USA England Women's World Cup 2019

The U.S. would hold on to win 2-1, advancing to the World Cup final for the third consecutive tournament.  

"There’s no words I can give you to let you know how proud I personally am of Alyssa and how proud our entire team is," Christen Press said. "It was so epic."

For Naeher, it was vindication in the biggest possible way. She’s been constantly questioned in her first major tournament as the team’s starter, as she takes over from Hope Solo as the USWNT No. 1. 

All along, Naeher has stayed even-keeled, trying to avoid getting caught up in comparisons.

"I’ve said from the beginning that I just try to be me," Naeher said. "My goal every day is being a better person and a better player than I was yesterday.

"To me it’s not about comparisons, it’s about how I can help this team win here in 2019."

Naeher has had some questionable moments to be sure. Against Chile in the group stage, she whiffed on a through ball that went straight past her into the goal, only for the offside flag to save her.  

Then against Spain in the last 16, Naeher was partially at fault on Spain’s opener, as she played Becky Sauerbrunn the ball in a tight spot before the defender lost possession and watched Jenni Hermoso find the back of the net.  

Throughout it all, Naeher has kept her cool as her teammates and coach Jill Ellis have continued to back her, insisting she would come through for them.

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On the biggest stage and on the biggest moment, that's exactly what Naeher did.

"She’s making her own mark and creating her own legacy," Ellis said after the game, "and that’s fantastic."

The USWNT goalkeeper may not be Briana Scurry and she may not be Hope Solo. But she is Alyssa Naeher. On Tuesday night, that’s all she needed to be. 

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