EAST HARTFORD — Gearing up for her second Olympic Games – and the first as the starting goalkeeper for the U.S. Women’s National Team – a pair of friendly tune-up matches against Mexico at Rentschler Field is the perfect send-off for Stratford native Alyssa Naeher.
The team heads to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics looking to bring back a gold medal after its run of three straight Olympic gold medals ended with a disappointing quarterfinal loss to Sweden in the 2016 Rio Olympics and a fifth place finish. It was the team’s first Olympic loss since falling to Norway in the gold-medal game in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Naeher was the reserve goalkeeper in Rio behind Hope Solo – who held the starting role for more than a decade – but she’s established herself as the squad’s regular starter since Solo was dismissed from the team after the 2016 games.
Naeher said being named to her second Olympic team was the “greatest honor,” as was representing the U.S. and Connecticut as the starter in Rio. And, playing the send-off games in East Hartford added another level of excitement for the former Christian Heritage Academy star, who said she had a lot of family, friends and old teammates and coaches in the stands.
“I think there’s just, you know, the extra energy, extra excitement levels, knowing that we leave from here to head over to Tokyo,” Naeher told reporters before the game. “So, I love coming back to Connecticut. I’m looking forward to a big, rowdy crowd at Rentschler Field.”
The crowd did not disappoint. A tightly-packed Thursday-night crowd of 21,637 mostly filled the lower bowl and the sideline sections of the upper deck at Rentschler Field, and the fans kept up their raucous intensity through a steady rain that endured from the kick-off to the final whistle.
There were plenty in the stands to see Naeher, including girls with dreams of playing for the national team. Naeher said she identified with the young players and remembered opportunities when she was their age to see and talk to players she idolized.
“I just hope I can inspire them and help them out the same way that, you know, some of the past players have inspired me when I was their age,” Naeher said.
Naeher was the hero in the squad’s fourth World Cup win in 2019, playing nearly every minute of the U.S. squad’s seven matches in Lyon, earning four clean sheets — games in which she prevented the opponent from scoring — and allowing only three goals.
She led the U.S. squad through its semifinal match against England with two extraordinary saves to preserve a 2-1 lead – including a diving stop to corral a low penalty kick from England’s Steph Haughton in the 84th minute that sealed the U.S. victory.
Naeher is sure to have her share of opportunities to stop shots in Tokyo, but against Mexico, she was hardly tested. The staunch back line and controlling attack of the U.S. kept the ball safely away from Naeher for much of the half, and she faced only one shot on goal before she was pulled at halftime in favor of reserve goalkeeper Adrianna Franch.
Mexico put on pressure early, but struggled to find a shot that didn’t sail over the crossbar or find itself diverted by a U.S. defender. Naeher ran up to intercept two threatening crosses into the box, but wasn’t tested by a shot until about 30 minutes in – when she stretched forward to punch away a shot from Mexico’s Jimena López.
That shot proved to be Naeher’s biggest challenge. She safely corralled a weak lob toward the net in the 40th minute, before being substituted out to cheers from the home-state crowd.
U.S. Coach Vlatko Andonovski said he pulled Naeher because he wanted to give Franch a chance to play with the team ahead of Tokyo, and especially to give her experience coming off the bench in the middle of the game, in case she is needed in the Olympic tournament.
“We have two very good goalkeepers. We have no problems with Alyssa by any means, I think she’s incredible, and I’m sure she will do incredible during the Games,” Andonovski said.
While Andonovski is confident in his keepers, the story of the game Thursday night was offense – and the U.S. offense received a huge boost when New Jersey native Tobin Heath returned to the pitch for the first time since suffering an ankle injury while playing with Manchester United in January.
Heath replaced Megan Rapinoe after the star forward struck the crossbar 70 minutes in, and Heath wasted no time. Less than a minute after entering the game, she took her first touch and drove a shot from far outside the box that sailed past Mexico goalkeeper Emily Alvarado to bring the U.S. lead to three.
“I didn’t know if I would get back to this, obviously it took a lot of work and patience, and honestly I had a lot of help. So I have a lot of people to be thankful for that,” Heath said. “I didn’t have much time, so I had to make the most of it all, and it was hard but I was really happy with [being back on the field].”
Massachusetts natives and sisters Sam and Kristie Mewis opened up the scoring with a sister-to-sister assist. Kristie laid a pass over to Sam, who drove the ball low into the right corner of the net to open up a 1-0 lead for the U.S. squad.
“I think we had like over 40 people here. It was a bummer because we couldn’t really find them up in the stands, but we saw Sam’s husband’s we waved at him a little bit at the end,” Kristie Mewis told reporters after the game. “The East Coast is so close to my heart and I felt at home here. So it was really special for Sam and I to kind of enjoy this game together, and for my family, after just the year that everyone has had, it was really special for everyone to be able to come to this game.”
Christen Press showed off her elusiveness and scoring touch with two goals, including one where she slipped past two defenders in the box to finish a well-placed cross from Tierna Davidson – bringing the lead to 4-0 near the end of the game.
On Monday, Naeher and the U.S. squad will take the field for the final time before heading to Tokyo, in a rematch against Mexico at Rentschler Field.