After a lengthy review, the referee pointed right at the spot after deciding England’s Ellen White was indeed fouled right in front of the American goal.
The only thing standing between England and an equalizing goal was Alyssa Naeher — American keeper and Penn State alumna.
English skipper Steph Houghton did not look confident in the run-up to the spot. She only took a few steps while looking at the ball. She hit a soft shot toward the right side of Naeher, who guessed right on the ground ball and clutched the ball into her arms.
The 2019 Women’s World Cup is Naeher’s first big moment as the starting goalie on an international stage after taking over Hope Solo’s coveted No. 1 spot post-2016 Olympics.
Three minutes after the game-salvaging save, fellow Nittany Lion Ali Krieger joined Naeher on the pitch after workhorse fullback Kelley O’Hara was subbed out.
Penn State has had a fair share of success in the collegiate women’s soccer scene, being one of the nation’s powerhouses. However, this World Cup is a sign of the excellence of the program, with Naeher between the sticks and Krieger as the veteran presence after being left out of the U.S. setting for two years.
It was not outside of Penn State coach Erica Dambach’s expectations, though.
“We pride ourselves in being able to prepare players for the next level, whether it’s going to the pro leagues or playing for their respective national teams,” Dambach said.
“It’s something that we focus on based on our experience as a staff and our ability to help players understand all the aspects needed to compete on that level.”
The success could be seen from the stellar recruits the Nittany Lions had in the past few years. Players like Shea Moyer, Kayleigh Riehl and Emily Ogle have had their fair share of experience in the youth setup of Team USA. They also added All-American transfer Sam Coffey into the mix this season.
Dambach also acknowledged the advantage Penn State has of being an established collegiate athletic program as well.
“Penn State has all of the resources you need in order to prepare these players to compete on the next level,” she said. “World-class facilities, nutrition, sports psychology, physiology. Everything these athletes need is taken care of and all they have to do is focus on their training.”
The success also came by way of the culture Dambach set in her program, which has been a working progress throughout the years. It is something she said she is proud of as well.
“We feel like we can differentiate ourselves from any other program in the country by culture alone,” she said. “We focus on it every day. We have a member on our staff that’s solely focused in Kara Lowery. It is something that we feel we do better than anyone.”
It also provided an edge in the recruiting game, in which Penn State has stood out. The Nittany Lions had the top class in 2019, ranked No. 2 in 2014 and 15 and came in the top 10 in 2017 and 18.
“From a recruiting standpoint, the competitive advantage is the ability to differentiate yourself from all the competition out there,” Dambach said.
Dambach, who was part of the national setup from 2007 to 2012, worked with Krieger in the 2008 Olympics and 2011 World Cup.
Her experience with Naeher in the Penn State program was very memorable too. The two worked on a closer basis and Dambach is very proud of the former Nittany Lion.
“Alyssa’s success on the big stage could not happen to a better person,” Dambach said. “Obviously she’s a big talent on the field but she’s a better person. She works hard, puts her head down, is humble and loves to compete.”
Naeher improved throughout the years in a career that saw her make stops in Boston, Massachusetts, Potsdam, Germany and Chicago, Illinois.
Dambach said she was proud to see her first No. 1 keeper develop further after her all-American stint. She continued getting opportunities to improve in different aspects of her game, like kicking and communication, under great goalkeeper coaches.
“You always knew she was special when you saw her in college, but she still had work to do…,” Dambach said. ‘[Naeher] has developed into one of the top goalkeepers in the world. I couldn’t be more proud of all the work she’s put in and her willingness to step outside her comfort zone in order to have this success.”
This edition of the Women’s World Cup is definitely one of the biggest events the sport has ever had. There were a fair share of marquee matchups with a few competitive groups and final-caliber games like USA-France and USA-England in the knockout stages. Those games definitely help push the record-breaking viewership numbers in the U.S. and abroad.
It also helped the cause with the European teams closing in on the skill gap with the USWNT, who definitely benefited with the existence of Title IX. Some might argue that most teams are more tactically sound when compared to the U.S. as the game developed gradually across the pond.
Most of all, the women’s World Cup became a platform for players to make their voices heard. The battle of pay inequality started way before the tournament, with the USWNT having an ongoing class-action lawsuit against the issue. Internationally, the reigning women’s best player in the world (Ballon D’Or winner) Ada Hegerberg refused to play for Norway for the same reason. It also stemmed into conversations with LGBTQ+ rights and breaking the stereotypes surrounding the game.
“I think the US team has the attention of everybody in the world and they’re using their platform for good to try to affect change,” Dambach said. “I have a ton of respect that they’re willing to put their necks on the line in order to help future generations.”
She also touched on how role models being featured on such a public platform can help change the world, bit by bit.
“You can’t help but to be inspired by this event and these women,” Dambach said.
“They are confident, strong and have worked so hard to develop this sport in our country and around the world. I think girls that are not even soccer fans have turned to it just to watch these women succeed.”