Benefield: Fans at Santa Rosa pub dazzled by US women's World Cup semifinal win
The lead-up to Tuesday’s Women’s World Cup semifinal between the United States and England had it all.
There was mystery. Why is the U.S. team’s woman of the moment, Megan Rapinoe, not starting — and why does she look so pissed as her teammates are busy warming up?
There was lingering chatter about the so-called SpyGate incident, in which United States staffers were spotting checking out the hotel the English team was staying in. Was this routine due diligence (it was the hotel that FIFA has assigned to the U.S. for Sunday’s final) or was it hubris?
And there was the weeks-in-the-making storyline of the arrogance among the U.S. players, what with their over-the-top goal celebrations on soccer’s biggest stage and all.
But at high noon in these parts, there was just soccer. Just the game. And the game delivered in spades. There was VAR intervention, there was an overruled goal, there was a penalty kick, there was a red card … on and on.
And for a standing-room-only, shoulder-to-shoulder crowd at Toad in the Hole pub in Santa Rosa, the United States’ 2-1 win to earn a spot in Sunday’s final against the winner of Wednesday’s match between Sweden and the Netherlands was nearly exhausting.
Just after the final whistle, when the crowd broke into the “We Love Ya” chant from the American Outlaws song sheet, it might have been out of relief as much as anything.
And in a game that featured all kinds of subplots, it also delivered an unlikely hero. It may have been Alex Morgan’s 30th birthday, and she may have sent home the game-winner off of her noggin in the 31st minute, but it was the game of U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher’s life.
Naeher has been a question mark all tournament. In a memorable gaffe, she put defender Becky Sauerbrunn in a world of trouble with a terrible pass during the game against Spain in the round of 16. Sauerbrunn coughed it up, leading immediately to the Americans giving up their first goal of the tournament.
But on Tuesday? On Tuesday, it was Naeher flying here and there, making stops against a potent English offense. England’s Ellen White, tied for most goals in the tournament at six, scored a goal in the 19th minute that nobody — not Naeher, not Hope Solo, not Manuel Neuer — was going to stop.
So when Naeher smothered a (poorly struck) penalty shot off the foot of English defender Steph Houghton with just six minutes to play in regulation time — when a goal would have breathed new life into the English team — Naeher was suddenly the woman of the match.
United States fan Mariela Madriz, cheering front at center at Toad in the Hole, said she had faith in Naeher all along. To prove she’s no bandwagon rider — that she was not one of the legions of people whispering uncertainties about Naeher’s abilities —Madriz was emphatic: She was the right player at the right time.
“Hell yeah,” she said. “She signed my jersey, hell yeah.”
Madriz promptly pulled out her phone, produced a selfie of, yes, her with Naeher, and her support was in full bloom.