In eerie quiet of sudden death, U.S. women’s soccer refuses to let quest for Olympic gold fade away – The Denver Post

In eerie quiet of sudden death, U.S. women’s soccer refuses to let quest for Olympic gold fade away – The Denver Post

YOKOHAMA, Japan — American goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher stood alone in an empty stadium, the eerie quiet of sudden death lurking like a ghost. She puffed herself up, exhaled slowly and steeled her resolve to not let down her red, white and blue besties.

“You got this! All you, Alyssa!” shouted Megan Rapinoe and her teammates from 60 yards away at midfield.

They watched with anxious eyes. Naeher bounced in the crease of her goal, trying to make herself appear larger than 5-foot-9, while awaiting yet another penalty kick as the Netherlands and USA fought to the bitter end of an epic game at the Summer Olympics.

Then, without flinching under pressure, Naeher smothered a shot from the spot by Dutch defender Aniek Nouwen, who grabbed her head in disbelief after the costly miss.

“I just want to help my team win a gold medal,” Naeher said.

After denying Nouwen with a diving save, Naeher calmly collected the ball, walked toward Rapinoe, and gave her teammate an order: “End it.”

If you’re a soccer-lover or a U.S. president, you know what happened next, because nobody relishes a direct challenge or the big moment more than Rapinoe.

“I just try to be calm,” Rapinoe said Friday, grinning the mischievous grin of a prankster about to make herself the butt of her own joke. “I always say to myself: ‘Well, the worst that’s going to happen is you’re going to lose the whole thing’ … You can either take one and lose it, or take one and win it. It’s going to go one of two ways.”

Rapinoe crushed her penalty kick high into the right-side netting. Obeying Naeher’s command, she ended it. Indeed. Dutch players collapsed in tears while her American teammates erupted in cheers, celebrating a victory clinched by a 4-2 margin in the shootout.

At a very strange Olympic Games this was yet another weird scene, as 72,000 unoccupied seats echoed the raw emotion of players who had fought to a 2-2 tie through a full 90 minutes, then slogged through a muggy summer evening for two extra periods, before Rapinoe ended the drama the only way she knows how: theatrically. The purple-haired star spun on her boots after the game-winning shot, defiantly crossed her arms across her chest and struck a how-do-you-like-me-now pose, as U.S players raced to embrace her.

“It’s such a cruel way to end a game,” Rapinoe said. “It sucks to miss one, it sucks to be on the losing end of that. But that was not us today.”

At these Isolation Games, where precautions against COVID-19 often make it seem like a big party that could’ve been really cool if only the host had remembered to mail out invitations, this was a soccer match so delicious it was a crying shame there wasn’t a screaming, sweating SRO crowd to share it. In the absence of spectators, the tension and anguish became very personal, especially during the shootout, when the only sounds were nervous screams from both teams.

“And I could hear them,” Naeher said. “I could hear them the whole time saying: ‘We’re with you!’ And that meant a lot. I could feel them right there with me and felt their support. I felt that energy from them.”

The Dutch had entered this quarterfinal showdown at the Olympic tournament smelling weakness, sensing that 39-year-old Carli Lloyd and the golden girls from the USA were a dynasty ready to fade away.

“We are not afraid of America,” midfielder Danielle van de Donk had vowed prior playing the USWNT. “Somehow I feel like save the best for last, but maybe they are not the best at all this tournament.”

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