YOKOHAMA, Japan — The United States women’s soccer team beat the Netherlands in a penalty shootout on Friday to advance to the semifinals of the Tokyo Olympics, leaning on its veterans to deliver a thrilling and resilient moment in a tournament journey that had previously been marked by defeat and frustration.
Megan Rapinoe, the U.S. team’s steely and outspoken veteran forward, delivered the winning kick that beat the Netherlands, 4-2 in the shootout, after the teams played to a 2-2 tie.
Rapinoe, as is her custom, struck a victory pose after converting her kick, and was soon engulfed by her teammates. But it was goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher who had truly saved the game, making several big stops long before the shootout — including a late Netherlands penalty kick that could have sealed the Americans’ second straight medal-free exit from the Games — and then stopping two more Dutch penalty attempts in the shootout.
“There’s no one else I’d rather have in the net than her,” midfielder Rose Lavelle said. “She’s saved us so many times.”
The game, played in an empty stadium so quiet that the few reporters and spectators inside could hear the players shouting out defensive assignments and words of encouragement, was a collision of two of the best women’s teams in the world, and a rematch of the 2019 Women’s World Cup final.
That game was also won by the Americans, with the aid of a Rapinoe penalty. But this summer it appeared the Netherlands would be positioned to take its revenge.
The United States had struggled in the group stage, humbled by Sweden in its opening game and frustrated by a defensive game plan in its third game against Australia, a dour scoreless tie that guaranteed advancement but did little to lift the team’s confidence.
A date with the Netherlands brought a daunting obstacle, but also a look-in-the-mirror moment for the Americans, who may have felt that their legacy and their primacy in women’s soccer — not to mention a berth in the semifinals — were on the line on Friday. The game was a test of the mettle and the famed “mentality” that they had talked all week about regaining. But it was also a test of their pride.
The Dutch had been the highest-scoring team in the Olympic tournament, raining 21 goals in three group-stage games, and they took the lead on Friday through a quick-turn shot by their star striker, Vivianne Miedema. In that moment, a lesser team might have adopted a sense of resignation, that this was not, for once, its year.
But the United States, seemingly annoyed by surrendering a goal in a game it had dominated, quickly answered with goals three minutes apart by Sam Mewis and Lynn Williams.
Miedema scored her second early in the second half — her 10th goal of the tournament — and then the fight was really on. The Dutch pressed forward again and again, but the United States fought off one wave of attacks after another, thanks several times to acrobatic saves by Naeher, their quiet Connecticut-born goalkeeper.
Each team had goals scored and then called back for offside violations — a recurring theme for the Americans in a frustrating group stage — and each thought, at one point or another, it had the game won.
But without a goal, the game went to penalties, and that was where Naeher made all the difference.
She set the tone from the start, stopping Miedema on the first attempt with a dive to her right. Her teammates, sensing an opening, stepped up one after another and went for the kill. Rose Lavelle. Alex Morgan. Christen Press.
When Naeher made her second stop, on Aniek Nouwen, with another dive to her right, it set the stage for Rapinoe. Everyone in the stadium, it seemed, knew what was coming next.
“I just try to be calm,” Rapinoe said, explaining her mentality during a shootout. “I say to myself, the worst that’s going to happen is that we lose the whole thing.”
Granted a chance to win the game, to play the hero’s role that Naeher would almost certainly reject, she grabbed it: Taking a deep breath, she drove a rising shot into the top right corner of the goal. When it hit the netting, she jumped in the air and landed firm on her feet, her arms across her chest, a smile on her face and with her team — now racing to swallow her in a hug — in the semifinals.
Naeher, watching nearby, reached down to grab her water bottle and jogged over to join the party. Finally, she was smiling.
The Americans will play Canada on Monday, their gold medal hopes still alive. That game will be in Kashima, and the United States will arrive with a newfound sense that maybe, just maybe, a tournament that started badly can end the way the Americans planned all along.