Canada, USA…you would be hard pressed to find a better rivalry in the sporting world, one that is fierce across all sports. While both countries may naturally associate this storied opposition with hockey, women’s soccer may be where we see the second most intense installment, and we have one game to thank for that.
There are few words that spark more haunting flashbacks for Canadian soccer fans than “London 2012” without any more context. It was the last time these two countries met at the Olympics, a semifinal showdown at Old Trafford that went the way of the United States, after what can only be described as one of the biggest controversies in women’s soccer history. Join me for a walk down memory lane, for our Canadian readers I’m sorry, for our American friends, you’re welcome.
The 2012 Tournament
The London Games were the first of Canada’s back-to-back bronze medals, and the last time the Americans won gold. While the Americans finishing atop the podium was probably what everyone projected after watching them sweep the group stage, the Canadians being on one of the steps, and nearly climbing one higher, was a shock given that they only made the knockout round as a third-place qualifier.
John Herdman’s squad had been drawn into a group with Sweden, Japan, and South Africa, earning a 1-1-1 record with a +2 goal differential. This saw them through to a quarterfinal matchup with Great Britain that they shockingly handled with a 2-0 win.
Pia Sundhage and her crew breezed through their group which included North Korea, France, and Colombia. They would go on to handle New Zealand in the quarterfinal, setting the stage for the North American showdown.
What would go down as a classic was fittingly played out at Old Trafford stadium, one of the sport’s most hallowed grounds, which could explain the blazing start the Canadians got off to…no better motivation to make history than where history has been made countless times before, right?
From the opening whistle, it was apparent that if Canada weren’t going to leave the game with a win, they would make sure the Americans left with a plethora of bruises to show for their efforts. At the time Melissa “Tank” Tancredi was still in the fold and wasted no time making her mark on the US side. Tancredi would do more than be a physical presence, getting her foot in on the build up of some of Sinclair’s three goals.
The biggest surprise of the tournament up until that point came by way of a Canadian lead just after the 20 minute mark. At that point, we should have all seen the insanity coming…
It was truly a back and forth affair, with the US always finding a way to equalize after the Canadians could muster another lead. But it was their final equalizing marker that has been etched into the brains of any fan paying an iota of attention.
Rapinoe curled a shot toward the back post with just over 10 minutes to go in regulation. Canada held a 3-2 lead as the ball sunk into the grateful mitts of keeper Erin McLeod, who held on as tightly as Canada clung to their lead. But according to referee Christina Pederson, McLeod held the ball too long, and thus the US were awarded an indirect free kick from the top of the box.
It was a call that many at the time had said they had never seen before, and haven’t seen since. There is an allowance in the rule book to call a keeper for time wasting if they hold the ball for longer than six seconds. However the same rule indicates that the goalie would need to be warned once before the call can be made. According to McLeod and the Canadian side, no such warning was given before the official decided to call the violation.
The ensuing free kick was fired at the arm of Marie-Eve Nault, who was in the box as part of the wall, and was called as a PK for the States. Wambach made no mistake, sliding the ball coolly into the corner beyond McLeod and levelling the score with under 10 to go.
By this point, we all know how this one ends. Alex Morgan beat McLeod for the USA’s fourth goal and first lead of the game in the injury time of the second half of additional time. The Americans would go on to win the gold, with Canada capturing their first Olympic medal in women’s soccer.
Beyond the medal, Canada was returning home with a newly fuelled fire, knowing they could go toe-to-toe with the world champions, and would be ready to do so whenever the next battle would be called.
Teams in Tokyo
The Americans have six faces back from the 2012 showdown (Morgan, Rapinoe, Heath, Lloyd, Sauerbrunn, O’Hara, while the Canadians have four (Sinclair, Schmidt, Scott, McLeod). But you don’t need to have played in The Game to feel the effects of this rivalry. What is perhaps the most intriguing about this matchup is the similarities up and down the lineups for each squad. There are a number of interesting positional battles that are about to play out.
World Class Fullbacks: Ashley Lawrence (CAN) vs Crystal Dunn (USA)
Lawrence has emerged as Canada’s best player at these Games, something that has perhaps been a little while in the making for the PSG fullback. The dynamic player has created one goal for her side as well as possessing a unique ability to create chances out of nothing. Her time with her European club has helped to establish her as one of the best at her position in all of the game, and at just 26 it would not be a long shot to consider her the heir apparent to Sinclair’s throne of being the face of the Canadian game.
Her counterpart puts in world class performances alongside Sinclair week in and week out for the Portland Thorns, that being Dunn. While the US backline has looked shaky, Dunn has played every part the shutdown role you would expect out of her position. Dunn has shown time and time again that she can break a game open with her feet and will look to launch multiple attacks from the backline.
Hard Tackling Holders: Desiree Scott (CAN) vs Julie Ertz (USA)
If you thought bruises were doled out by Tank and Wambach in the first edition of this fight, Scott and Ertz would like a word. Both are accustomed to the bruising style of North American play thanks to their tenures in the NWSL and will look to inspire their sides to keep up the tradition of body-on-body rivalry soccer.
Ertz is a particular interest for this tournament as she didn’t make the starting lineup for the team’s opener, her introduction in the second half drastically changed the outlook for the US. In all likelihood she’ll crack the starting group for the semifinal, but how long she will last remains to be seen.
Veterans Hungry for Goals (and Gold): Christine Sinclair (CAN) vs Carli Lloyd (USA)
Not much needs to be said about Sinclair’s hunt for gold. All you need to do to see what it means is watch the despondent look on Captain Canada’s face from 2012. It’s as if you could see her redemption story being written in real time. She has yet to beat the bronze after a repeated third in Rio and two disappointing exits in the Women’s World Cup and with this likely her swan song, the fire will be burning brighter than ever before.
As for Lloyd, she has it all already but a veteran of her status always likes to pad the trophy case. In her fourth Games, it would be easy to see Lloyd as a non-factor, simply along for the ride, but that is simply not who Lloyd is. Like Ertz, she was dropped to the bench in the team’s opener and when she was brought on it all seemed to change. How the coaching staff elects to use her in this one will be a story to watch.
Keys to the Win: Canada
Team defence is undoubtedly their biggest strength, as was on display in the quarterfinal, being the only team to move on not to concede a goal at that stage. Thankfully for Canadian fans, this strength matches up well with the Americans’ biggest strength being their attack.
What makes the defence so strong is how deep it is. While yes there is the talent on the backline to depend on them in a pinch, this is a team that truly defends as a unit. Vanessa Gilles had a breakout second half against Brazil and the whole world knows the name Kadeisha Buchanan, so Canada has about as solid of a centre back duo as anyone in this tournament, a perfect foundation to build the defensive unit on.
With a backline that is a nice mix of veteran wisdom and youthful exuberance, it will also be interesting to watch them play the offside trap, a trap that has tripped up the Americans more than anything else in this last week. Despite having the talent to take on the top American line, if the back four can stay in high communication and hold a strong line, they’ll thwart their fair share of offensive attempts without having to break a sweat.
Attack the Cracks
This is perhaps the most beatable American team we’ve seen in a very long time. While they are undoubtedly the most talented side at the Games, they have cracks that began to be exposed by Sweden as of minute one of game one: the right side of the defence. And Canada has the perfect recipe to exploit that should they choose to use her: Nichelle Prince.
Abby Dahlkemper and O’Hara have been the weak link and with Prince’s pace and footwork, she’ll present the best chance to get in behind the backline to create offence. The small caveat is that she naturally plays on Canada’s right side so she would need to be flipped to the left side of the field to expose this weakness. Canada can certainly use this without moving Prince, but the youngster is undoubtedly the offensive spark plug, therefore making the most sense as the answer.
Creativity, Creativity, Creativity
Not much to add here that hasn’t already been said about the Canadian side. They become far too predictable once in the offensive third, especially because there doesn’t seem to be a player willing to step up and take a shot from beyond the 18. In order to beat their most-faced opponent, something will need to be different up front from this side. They have been so stagnant for so long that any new wrinkle has the chance to throw off the Americans.
Keys to Victory: USA
American Substitutes are Other Teams’ Starters
As mentioned, the wealth of talent on the American team is astounding. It’s hard not to laugh out of sheer disbelief when you see a side bringing on Rapinoe or Morgan as a sub. But such is the case they have been blessed with and if they use it correctly, it could be the nail in the coffin to putting the Canadians away.
If the Americans are in a hole late, or if the score is deadlocked, they have an embarrassment of riches at their disposal to remedy the situation, whereas we have seen Canada run out of gas more often than not this week. Also seeing Canada concede late in all three games should give the Americans confidence that any late goal will likely not be answered.
Show Up For Kickoff
The States have already been caught underestimating opponents once in this tournament and we all know how that ended (in embarrassment). When they opened play against Sweden, they appeared to still be on an LA beach, one where they were hit by a hurricane. There didn’t seem to be an answer for anything the Swedes threw at them, until it was too late. When they came out for the second half, it looked much closer to the USA we expect, but even they couldn’t dig out of the hole they dug themselves.
As they gear up for Canada, it will be pivotal that they show up for the opening whistle. It’s a matchup that has been dominated by the States for the better part of two decades, with Canada’s last win coming in 2001. And with the last three competitive meetings being won by a combined score of 7-0 for the Americans, it would be very easy for them to expect to ease into this one and not need to press on the gas, a situation in which the Canadians have shown they thrive (see: London 2012).
It seems weird that this has to be included in a semifinal preview but with the Americans being called offside more than anybody else in this tournament (over 10 goals called back) it appears necessary. The only real explanation as to why this keeps happening is they’re simply not paying attention, something truly inexcusable at this level. If they can tighten this up, Lord knows there’s potential for this to get ugly quite quickly.
The rivalry revisited, the stage is set; grab a coffee (or three) because this could go down as an instant classic. Let us know who you got over on Twitter (@unbenched_) and follow along with my live tweeting at 4am EST (@caseyydobson_).