There were big cleats to fill for some members of the United States Women's National Team on Tuesday.
Christen Press drew into the starting lineup for the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup semifinal match against England after Megan Rapinoe, scorer of the USWNT's last four goals entering the match, sat on the sidelines with what she ultimately told reporters was a hamstring injury. The biggest cleats to fill were in goal, where Alyssa Naeher started her sixth straight match at the World Cup. Through each of those starts, the absence of predecessor Hope Solo has loomed.
Or it did, until Naeher preserved the USWNT's 2-1 win by saving England captain Steph Houghton's penalty in the 84th minute Tuesday.
The English were awarded the penalty after the referee initiated a VAR review. Replays indicated that USWNT central defender Becky Sauerbrunn clipped the leg of England striker Ellen White as she tried to shoot, and the referee eventually pointed to the penalty spot.
Naeher, 31, has been the USWNT's No. 1 goalkeeper since Solo was kicked off the team after the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. After Sweden eliminated the Americans in the quarterfinals of the tournament, Solo was suspended by U.S. Soccer and had her contract terminated after saying the Swedes "played like cowards." The outspoken Solo has not played since then, but this is the USWNT's first Olympics or World Cup without her on the roster since 2003.
Solo is the most successful American keeper, and arguably the best to ever play the position. But neither that, nor the penalty itself, bothered Naeher much in the moment.
"Nothing," Naeher said when FOX Sports' Karina Leblanc asked what was going through her mind when the referee pointed to the spot. "Honestly. I ... just took a few deep breaths, and tried to stay focused. Got a pep talk from Christen Press over here about six months ago, telling me I need to be more positive on penalty kicks, and just relax and let instincts take over. And I give her some credit for that one for sure, keeping me calm."
Naeher kept Press, who scored the Americans' first goal in the 10th minute, and the rest of her teammates calm all match. Her best save might have come in the 33rd minute when she tipped away Keira Walsh's speculative shot from long-range.
The USWNT spent much of the final 45 minutes in their own half of the pitch, as coach Jill Ellis ultimately changed to a conservative 5-4-1 formation. The second half looked like a repeat of Friday's second half against France in the quarterfinals, but Naeher once again stood tall.
Her teammates' reactions after the match just about summed it up.
“She saved our ass,” @alexmorgan13 says of goalie Naeher— Kasie Hunt (@kasie) July 2, 2019
Naeher will be needed once again in Sunday's final. Whether the Americans play Sweden or the Netherlands in Lyon for a chance to win their second consecutive World Cup, an early USWNT lead almost assuredly means a second-half formation switch from Ellis.
The conservative approach hasn't yet cost Ellis' squad, and she has Naeher to thank for that.