The game ended with a familiar sight, with Megan Rapinoe in celebration mode, this time turning back from a winning penalty kick to face her jubilant teammates, arms crossed in triumph over the goal that had just clinched a nervy, tense, and dramatic extra-time, shootout win over the Netherlands.
Gone was her usual victory pose, the one that has her pointing to an erupting crowd with a “look-at-what-I-just-did” smile on her face. There is no crowd to play to at Tokyo’s Olympic International Stadium Yokohama, nor anywhere at these pandemic Games, though that didn’t diminish the tension of what was an incredibly even, hard-fought game between two women’s soccer powerhouses.
Maybe Rapinoe was just showing the haters she doesn’t need an audience to succeed, given how many seem convinced she only plays soccer to hog a spotlight, or maybe she was just making sure to soak the moment in with a group of teammates she has to know will not be hers forever, not as she now plays a role largely off the bench and makes her runs a slight step behind younger, faster opponents.
What a group of teammates they were on Friday, lifting each other to a critical win, a win that earned the United States, at the very least, a chance to play for a medal, a win that broke the barrier that blocked advancement to the medal round the last Olympic time out in Rio, a win that for much of the 120-plus minutes it was played was very much in doubt.
And while it was Rapinoe standing tall in the end, it was a different player who really deserved the spotlight, and she might be the one who wants it least.
So leave it to Alyssa Naeher’s teammates, Rapinoe chief among them, to make sure the world knows who won the game for them.
Their goalkeeper, the woman who stopped a Dutch penalty kick late in the second half, the woman who stopped two penalty kicks in the shootout, including the first from the dangerous Vivianne Miedema, the Connecticut native who channeled her best New England sporting self when she said after some less-than-inspiring early group play: “To channel, you know, my inner Bill Belichick, we’re on to New Zealand.” The woman who dived, contorted, and punched her team out of trouble too many times to count on Friday, but who barely wanted to take credit afterward.
“I said from the beginning I just want to help my team win a gold medal, and I am happy that what I did tonight was able to get us one step closer,” Naeher said.
“I am very happy, very proud of the group. I think this team, we always think we are going to find a way to win. I think you saw that tonight. The way this team came together and kept fighting, playing for each other, and pushing and pushing for 120 minutes. And then to have those four step up and bury their four penalties, we won tonight as a team.
“That was a true team effort.”
A team effort anchored by an MVP performance in net.
“She is not a person of many words, especially to you guys, she will probably never say anything to you guys. But she has been absolutely huge for us,” Rapinoe said. “She has been huge this whole tournament. Obviously to take a penalty from them in the run of play is huge. And then to take two in the shootout, that just made it so easy for us.”
“She deserves all the credit in the world,” echoed Rose Lavelle. “She saved us in the World Cup, she saved us today a trillion times. There is no one else I want behind me than her.”
The story of these Olympics hasn’t been easy for the Americans, who arrived in Tokyo on a record 44-game unbeaten streak only to be obliterated in their opener by Sweden, whose scoring touch disappeared not simply by lack of quality chances but by an almost impossible-to-believe number of goals disallowed by offside (up to 10 by the end of play Friday), who went into the game against the Dutch hearing one of their star players say how little she was scared of the American side anymore.
Like men’s basketball before them, they are reminded daily how heavy is the head that wears the crown, and in their quest to be the first women’s side to follow a World Cup win with one in the Olympics, the edges started to fray. They are older, with an extra pandemic year added to their collective age, and the heat of Japan’s summer months has made sure they know it.
But they are deeper, too, and when Lynn Williams starred in her surprise start, scoring a goal and an assist, when Sam Mewis threw her head into a perfect header to convert Williams’s pass, when the likes of Lavelle and Christen Press and Rapinoe and Alex Morgan could come off the bench with such second-half energy (all four would convert in the shootout), that depth shone through.
Monday’s semifinal against Canada will be another great test, and there are no guarantees of even reaching the gold medal game, never mind winning it. As the Olympics manage to remind us every cycle, favorites falter and underdogs win, and oftentimes because the former is taken for granted and the latter overlooked. That should not be the case with these US women, who have maintained a place atop the world all while the rest of the world catches up.
Without Alyssa Naeher Friday, they would have been passed.