From World Cup heartbreak to SheBelieves Cup hero, Alyssa Naeher wins another penalty shootout for USWNT

Eight months and three days ago Down Under, Alyssa Naeher stared toward Earth, heartbroken, dumbfounded. She and the U.S. women's national team had suffered the cruelest of World Cup fates. They'd succumbed to Sweden in a seven-round penalty shootout, and not just that, players pointed out in the concrete bowels of a wintry stadium.

“It's tough,” Naeher said that night, “to have your World Cup end by a millimeter.”

The unbelievable image is still burned into USWNT minds. The ball. The line. The unseeable strip of green between them. Its width — a millimeter? Or a few? Or a fraction of one? Only FIFA knows — sent the U.S. crashing toward its earliest-ever exit. And it easily could have haunted the woman who oh so nearly clawed the ball away before it fully crossed the goal line.

But Naeher, a stone-cold, steely-nerved goalkeeper, is not wired to dwell on misfortune.

She is wired, apparently, to stare down Canadians, rise to moments, and win penalty shootouts — with her hands and with her right foot.

For the second time in a little more than a month, Naeher did that Tuesday night in Columbus, Ohio.

The USWNT and Canada went to penalties with the SheBelieves Cup on the line, after a 2-2 draw, just as they had in a W Gold Cup semifinal in March.

And there, with odds stacked against her, Naeher sprang to her right, again and again, to deny Canadian takers.

In between two saves, she grabbed the ball and stalked to the penalty spot to take a penalty of her own. And just like last month, she buried it.

This time, she had to rescue the U.S. from an early shootout deficit. Trinity Rodman's effort, the USWNT's first, was weak and saved. But Naeher responded in the third round, then the fourth. The shootout went to sudden death after Emily Sonnett missed a chance to win it. No problem, Naeher said.

She saved another Canadian shot in the seventh round, at the exact same stage she'd failed by a millimeter back in August, in Melbourne.

Emily Fox followed with a clinching conversion, and the U.S. celebrated another SheBelieves Cup title.

Like the Gold Cup, it won't erase World Cup anguish. "That's a very painful memory," interim coach Twila Kilgore said last month. "That will sit probably with all of us for a really long time."

But all they could do was respond. Naeher has responded in Herculean fashion. She was always a solid goalkeeper. She has become a penalty-shootout monster — a frightening sight for any opponent stepping to the spot, and a weapon that could come in handy this summer at the Olympics.