In maybe the best game so far of any team sport at the 2012 Olympics, the U.S. women’s soccer team beat their neighbors to the north, Canada, 4-3 in a thrilling semifinal match in Manchester. Playing at Old Trafford, the storied home of Manchester United, the two teams delivered a performance worthy of a stadium nicknamed “The Theater of Dreams.” Canada took the lead three times and each time the U.S. leveled in a match that was played at an extremely high level. Both teams played well on the ball, hit quality crosses and made hard challenges. A heroic goal in the dying moments of extra time by Alex Morgan kept the American's 11-year unbeaten streak against Canada intact. The States now advances to the gold medal final against current World Cup champ Japan and Canada will play for bronze against France. Here are five takeaways from this epic semifinal.
1. Without the University of Portland, this game wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting.
As NBC’s Arlo White mentioned in the broadcast, players from the two-time NCAA Champion Portland Pilots accounted for five of the goals in this barnburner. Proud alumnus and Canadian captain Christine Sinclair scored a hat trick, while American Megan Rapinoe had two of USA’s four goals. The two stars played together in college for a season, winning the 2005 national title with an undefeated season. Today they played across from each other and led their teams.
Sinclair opened the goalfest with a sterling strike in the 22nd minute, receiving a perfectly weighted pass in the middle of the box, pushing it to her right to create space, then pulling it left to slot it home past Hope Solo. It took until the 54th minute, but Rapinoe replied with a remarkable corner kick that curled into goal. Just 13 minutes later, it was Sinclair again heading the ball home off of a great cross by Melissa Tancredi. In no time at all, Rapinoe leveled the match again, scoring an audacious strike from the right corner of the 18-yard box that curled toward the left edge of the goal and caromed in off the post. But Sinclair was not done. She scored her third off her head, lofting it over Amy Le Peilbet, who had drifted off the post she was guarding during the Canadian corner kick. Unfortunately for Canada, that wasn’t the last goal of this game.
2. I went to a wrestling match and a soccer game broke out.
Yesterday, Canada’s a head coach John Herdman made some waves with his comments about America’s physical style of play. "One of the big threats we've got to take care of, and what we've paid attention to, is the illegal marking in the box on their corners and free kicks," he said. "Some of the blocking tactics, which are highly illegal, we'll keep an eye on them in the game.”
Yes, the U.S. have a big, strong team and rely on their strength for an advantage. But it was a bit odd to see the Canadian coach call them out for it when his team plays in a similar manner. Maybe he meant to set a tone for his team today, warning them publicly that they shouldn’t be outmuscled on the field. If that was the case, they listened. Canada delivered some crunching challenges on the US and didn’t shy away from contact in the box.
You also got the sense that the ref also got Herdman’s message early on, keeping a tight reign on the game. In the first half she called a soft foul called on US captain Christie Rampone on the edge of the box that nearly set up a scoring opportunity for Canada. In the 36th minute Abby Wambach was called for a foul as she went for a header and overpowered the Canadian defender. Even if Canada got some favorable treatment early on, the team won’t have too many kind words for Norwegian referee Christiana Pedersen.
3. That referee won’t be welcome in Canada anytime soon.
Whoa, boy, was there a moment of controversy in this one and it didn’t go Canada’s way at all. In a rarely made call, the referee whistled Canada’s goalkeeper Erin McLeod for time wasting in the 78th minute. McLeod had held the ball for more than six seconds in attempt to bleed time off the clock because her team had a 3-2 lead. The call left the Canucks fuming because it awarded the US an indirect free kick in the box. When the Yanks took a shot, it hit a Canadian in the arm and the ref pointed to the penalty spot. After much protesting by the Canadians, Abby Wambach stepped up to slot home a well-taken penalty to tie the game. Neither team scored in the last 10 minutes, so the game went to extra time with the possibility of being decided on penalties.
4. There has never been a penalty shootout at the Women’s Olympic Soccer tournament.
And Alex Morgan kept it that way. In nearly the last touch of the match, 391 game minutes since her last goal, the 22-year old star headed home the United States’ fourth goal in the 123rd minute. The game looked poised for penalties, but Morgan, who had been providing many of the crosses for Wambach’s scoring opportunities the last few games, found space of her own in the box and got on the end of a pass to send her team to the Final. Afterward, Wambach, who had talked to Morgan about her goal drought between games, said, “I’m really glad Alex Morgan is on my team and I’m really glad she learned how to head today.” American fans feel the same way.
5. Could we have a new North American soccer rivalry?
Yes, for a rivalry to actually be a rivalry, one team can’t totally dominate the proceedings like America has. The USA’s all-time record against Canada is 43-3-5, where they’ve scored 128 more goals than the Canucks in those games. Canada is winless in its last 27 matches against the U.S., going 0-23-4 since a win at the Algarve Cup in 2001. However, Canada showed great fight and exceptional skill in a game they were unlucky to lose. Much of the game was played with an intensity and physicality that reminded me of the USA-Mexico rivalry on the men’s side (though maybe with a little less malice). Here’s hoping the Canucks can build off of this and continue to provide an enthusiastic challenge to the United States for years to come.