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Benefield: Fans at Santa Rosa pub dazzled by US women's World Cup semifinal win

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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.

“She read the whole play,” she said. “The player’s hips? She could read it.”

When a coach or teammate talk first about how nice a person is or how much team spirit they have, my first instinct is to question the athletic ability of the person in question. So when, after the game, Ellis addressed reporters and said of Naeher, “She’s a tremendous person. People care about her, people have her back,” it screamed “Yes, we too hear the doubters about our first-string goalkeeper.”

But she paused and remembered the right thing to say. “And yeah, helluva a save, for sure.”

And Morgan was no less impressed with Naeher’s game.

“She saved our ass,” Morgan said in a postgame interview, before pausing. “Excuse that. She saved our butts.”

Another save came from forward Christen Press. It was Press who lined up at left wing to replace Rapinoe, a player who has quickly become the face of the tournament for the U.S.

No explanation was given before the game as to why Rapinoe, who had scored four goals in two games, was not starting and not even warming up. The patrons at Toad in the Hole, along with seemingly every social media account in the universe, were atwitter with the mystery.

But in the 10th minute, Press made Ellis look like a genius for making the change, scoring on a header from a ball sent into the box from Kelley O’Hara.

“This team is so good, their depth, it shows they can beat any team in the world,” Heather Gullino said. Gullino, wearing a USA T-shirt and cheering loudly at the pub, had the same questions everybody else had before the game about why Rapinoe was on the sideline.

But when a player of Rapinoe’s caliber can be replaced with a player of Press’s speed and skill, you know the United States is deep. Deeper still when midfielder Rose Lavelle came off in the 65th minute with some kind of injury and onto the field stepped Samantha Mewis.

It’s embarrassing, really.

But for all of that depth, England didn’t look intimidated. And they kept a full house at a pub 5,600 miles away a bit antsy for stretches Tuesday afternoon. But the U.S. jersey has three stars above the crest for a reason.

“And I thought England played an amazing match,” Gullino said. “They were very, very well-matched teams.”

That much-lauded “winning mentality” that some construe as arrogance is the same ingredient the team uses to ride out a win.

And one more win gets them a fourth star on the crest. It’s not arrogant — it’s what they came for.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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