Improved U.S. driven by Naeher heroics, Williams impact

The U.S. women’s national team is in the semifinals of the 2020 Olympic Games after beating the Netherlands in a thrilling back-and-forth affair that eventually went to penalty kicks.

– Report: USWNT reach Olympic semifinals with shootout win
– Lavelle: Naeher has saved us so many times

Whether the win feels like the U.S. defied the odds may depend on if you’ve been paying more attention to their No. 1 world ranking or their lackluster performances in the group stage of the tournament. Either way, the Netherlands and the top scorer of the tournament, Vivianne Miedema, are heading home and the U.S. will now face Canada on Monday (4 a.m. ET) for a spot in the final.

Here are some of the key takeaways:

Naeher is the hero

If it weren’t for goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, the USWNT would not be facing the final four of the Olympic women’s football tournament. Period.

The 33-year-old stepped up during regulation in the 81st minute to deny a poorly taken Lieke Martens penalty, but it was in the penalty shootout where Naeher really shined. She plucked a shot from the lethal Miedema out of the air on the first kick, immediately giving the USWNT the upper hand, and then she saved the Netherland’s fourth kick, from defender Aniek Nouwen, to clinch the win.

For Naeher, this may go down as the signature game of her tenure with the USWNT, the game that finally removed any and all doubt that she’s earned her spot as the USWNT’s starter in goal. After all, Naeher has often played in the shadow of Hope Solo and Brianna Scurry, the two USWNT goalkeepers that came before her, each of them earning a place in the conversation of the greatest goalkeepers of all-time.

Part of the hesitance from pundits and fans to accept Naeher as the heir to the position may be due to how she initially got the job. Hope Solo famously said Sweden played like “a bunch of cowards” in the 2016 Olympics and after other off-the-field issues, U.S. Soccer had had enough and kicked Solo off the team. Then-coach Jill Ellis quickly anointed Naeher as her replacement despite Naeher having just seven caps at the time, and Ellis never wavered from it, even early on when Naeher didn’t look quite ready.

Naeher is also just a different goalkeeper than her predecessors, not fitting the mold of the quintessential USWNT goalkeeper from years past. She doesn’t shout as much on the field, and she is a more reserved, quiet personality off the field. But Naeher has also shown she doesn’t need to be like anyone else, projecting a quiet, cool confidence and composure, and now saving penalty kicks in both a World Cup and an Olympics to help the U.S. advance.

“To take a penalty from them in the run of play was huge, but then to give us two in the shootout, it just made it so easy for us,” Megan Rapinoe said. “Especially with them going first. It takes the pressure off the team and she’s just been immense. She’s not a person of many words, especially to you guys, but she’s been absolutely huge for us.”

The USWNT looked like the USWNT again

If there was a deficiency throughout the group stage, it was an intangible that couldn’t be measured on a stat sheet: the USWNT just didn’t look like itself. The players lacked the self-belief and played shaky, scared soccer. That wasn’t the case on Friday, even if it was far from a technical masterclass from the Americans.

It was apparent from the opening whistle: the Americans immediately pressed and won the ball, setting a tone that they weren’t going to make it easy for the Netherlands. Even as they look tired and struggled to contain the Netherlands’ varied attacking threats at times, they kept coming back again and again. Alex Morgan told reporters afterward that if the game had gone on just five minutes longer, she was sure the USWNT would’ve won without needing penalty kicks.

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It may be a bit of a concern that the USWNT was whistled offside on four separate goals against the Dutch, making for nine would-be goals called back for the Americans in this Olympics. That may indicate something is still off with the team, but it also probably indicates relentlessness and tenacity. If they start getting their timing right, watch out.

Morgan had said the Olympics would really start once the knockout stage began, and Rapinoe seemed to share that sentiment Friday, framing the USWNT’s bounce back to form as inevitable.

“Oh, you guys aren’t surprised, come on,” Rapinoe told reporters, prompting laughter. “This is who we are. This is the knock out round.”

Rapinoe added: “This team just never really quits, even when we’re playing like s— or we’re playing great or we’re in the middle. We’re still gonna go out there and play as hard as we can.”

Asked if the USWNT’s performance against the Netherlands sent a message, Rose Lavelle responded: “The only ones I think we’re sending a message to is ourselves.”

Andonovski game management raises questions after Williams breakout

U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski made a big bet on the combination of Carli Lloyd and Lynn Williams, the most- and least-experienced forwards on the roster respectively, up front. That seemed to be by design; what Lloyd lacks is speed, and Williams on the flank could make up for that. Lloyd is an effective presser but not as good at getting behind back lines and stretching them, or in tracking back defensively.

Williams ended up being the engine of the USWNT’s attack against the Netherlands, chasing down balls and repeatedly offering good service. So, then, it was fitting that she played a role in both of the USWNT’s goals. First, in the 28th minute, she cut around a defender and delivered a cross into the box that Samantha Mewis only had to redirect with her head. Then, less than two minutes later, Williams volleyed a loose ball into the back of the net.

Yet her defensive work rate was just as important, which made awfully curious when Andonovski took Williams out in the 57th minute — an early stage to dip into substitutions with the possibility of extra time looming — and replaced her with Christen Press. At the time Williams came off the field, she was the USWNT’s best player on the front line. Seven minutes later, Andonovski took off Tobin Heath, who was also giving the Dutch defense some trouble, for Rapinoe.

Before the match even hit the 90-minute mark, both Press and Rapinoe looked exhausted, unable to help press or track back and defend, and the Netherlands grew increasingly dangerous. As the match went into extra time, their legs only grew heavier as the Netherlands out-shot the Americans 21-16.

Dutch manager Sarina Wiegman told Dutch media afterward that the U.S. seemed to be unable to keep up.

“Before the game it was being said that the U.S. was not in good shape — that turned out to be the case,” she said. “They had trouble with our ball circulation. It’s really, really a shame that we didn’t win.”

Andonovski said that in preparing his line-up and substitutions, “whether we like it not, we got to think at least a little about the next about the next opponent, we got to think about penalty kicks, we got to think about different match-ups on the field, or also how we want to start the game versus how we want to finish.”

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He did not specifically address why he made the substitutions when he did, but Andonovski did note, “the players that came in, I’m sure you noticed, were the four players who actually took the penalty kicks, so that was part of the plan, because if they started the game I didn’t know if they were going to be able to play 120 minutes.”

Williams ought to play a big role in the semifinal against Canada based on her performance Friday. For a player that initially came to Japan as an alternate before a rule change put her on the full roster, she’s certainly making the most of her chances.

A worrying trend along the back line

Andonovski had seemingly made one of his biggest moves in this Olympics against Australia when he opted to not start center-back Abby Dahlkemper. The U.S. coach said it was part of a rotation plan, but Dahlkemper is a player who would normally be expected to start every match, like she did during the 2019 World Cup, even as the lineups rotated heavily between games.

It seemed like it may have really been a chance for Dahlkemper to regroup.

She has usually been a picture of consistency for the Americans, providing the dual-threat of being a solid defender and an excellent long-range distributor of the ball. But she looked shaky in the USWNT’s first two games of group play, failing to track runners into the box and deserving some of the blame on goals conceded to both Sweden and New Zealand, and she against struggled against the Netherlands. It was Dahlkemper who failed on the first goal to step to Miedema, the most clinical scorer in the entire Olympic tournament — an inexcusable oversight given that Miedema set an women’s Olympic record for the most goals scored (eight) in the group stage.

Even though they’re in the semifinals, it has to be a growing concern that the USWNT back line has left so many gaps, and one of the USWNT’s go-to center backs has repeatedly been involved.