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SportsPulse: The USWNT and England played in an instant classic. And as Nancy Armour details, the U.S. continued their savagery ways on and off the pitch in route to the World Cup final. USA TODAY

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LYON, France — It says something that when the final whistle sounded, the entire U.S. team ran, full speed, to goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher. 

Not Alex Morgan or Christen Press.

Alyssa Naeher. The much-maligned Alyssa Naeher. 

"She saved the team," Becky Sauerbrunn said after the U.S. women advanced to their third consecutive World Cup final with a 2-1 victory Tuesday over England.

Hear that, all of you who've been bashing Naeher all these months? 

Naeher has the unenviable task of following Hope Solo and Briana Scurry, World Cup winners both and two of the greatest goalkeepers to ever play the game. She has been compared with them endlessly, and always found wanting. 

She doesn't have Solo's intimidation factor or Scurry's swagger or ... something. Whatever, she has been characterized as the weak link on the U.S. team, the one person who would be to blame if the Americans didn't repeat as World Cup champions. 

Naeher is too classy to address such nonsense, saying her only concern is getting better each day and helping her team win. 

But her teammates, they're a different story. They praise her at every opportunity, and defend her understated personality as a strength, not a liability. Her calm reserve might unsettle others, but it gives them strength. 

"Obviously she has a particular person that she’s following that had so much attention on her," Megan Rapinoe said. "But she hasn’t really had moments like these to come into herself."

She has now. 

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The U.S. was clinging to a 2-1 lead late in the game, having caught a break when Ellen White's goal in the 67th was ruled by VAR to be offside. But in the 83rd, Sauerbrunn was whistled for a foul after VAR determined she had clipped White at the penalty spot. 

The foul caused White, who had scored for England in the first half, to whiff on her shot. 

England captain Steph Houghton took the shot, and the stadium fell silent, the American fans who'd packed the stadium holding their collective breath. 

But as Houghton struck the ball, Naeher dove to her right with her arms extended. She grabbed the ball and clutched it tight as American fans and players erupted in a full-throated roar.

Not only had Naeher saved the penalty kick, she'd thwarted any chance of England getting the rebound. 

Naeher also made a terrific save in the first half, blocking a shot from long range by Keira Walsh. 

"I just tried to let instincts take over at that point," Naeher said of the penalty save. "Just try to get a good jump on it, get a good read, hope to make a save and I was able to do that." 

There were still 14 minutes left, but the victory was secure. The Americans were moving on, and they had Naeher to thank. 

"I’m glad that she had her moment," Sauerbrunn said. "She has been just huge for us so long. Now for the world to know how good she is, it’s good for you guys, but we already knew."

Naeher is never going to be like Solo or Scurry, and that's fine. Being Alyssa Naeher is plenty good enough. 

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour

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