After the U.S. women’s national team eked past the Netherlands, the reigning champions of Europe, following a grueling 120-minute slugfest and penalty shootout, it would be tempting to see Monday’s semifinal against Canada (4 a.m. ET) as a chance to take things easier. After getting clobbered by Sweden and landing in arguably the toughest quarterfinal of the Tokyo Olympics, Canada is the USWNT’s reward, right?
Not so fast.
“This is probably going to be our hardest game: We know that, and we are preparing for it that way,” U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski said Sunday. “It’s a semifinal — it’s four of the best teams in the world,” he added. “Regardless of who plays who, it will be a difficult game.”
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Whether Andonovski really feels that way deep down or not — cynics will surely doubt it — the U.S. ought to know better than to write Canada off. Here is a look at the history of these two teams, and why Monday’s semifinal could be an explosive one:
and go watch it. If you need your memory jogged: that was the wild back-and-forth shootout where Christine Sinclair scored a hat trick and the USWNT somehow came back three times to win 4-3. Alex Morgan scored the game winner at the last possible moment in the 123rd minute.
That match holds firm as a testament to the USWNT’s tenacity and never-say-die attitude, but it’s also the moment where Canada asserted itself as a top-tier team on the global stage. At the time, it was a bit of a shock to see the Canadians giving the Americans such a battle, but the Canadians earned a bronze medal in 2012, and then earned bronze again in 2016.
“In 2012, we were kind of on a hope and on a prayer,” Canadian veteran Desiree Scott said Sunday. “We were hoping we could get to that match, but now we truly believe in ourselves and what we can do on a soccer pitch, and we believe we can get to that gold medal game.”
What is perhaps most memorable about that 2012 semifinal at Old Trafford is the way Abby Wambach loudly counted into the ear of the Norwegian referee every time Canada’s goalkeeper, Erin McLeod, held the ball. After McLeod had been warned about time-wasting at halftime — there is a six-second limit on goalkeepers holding the ball that referees almost never enforce — Wambach counted to 10 and the referee blew her whistle, awarding an indirect free kick at the spot McLeod was standing. On the unusually close free-kick inside the box, the referee then called a Canadian defender for a handball, allowing Wambach to score a crucial penalty.
As far as USWNT wins go, it was a messy one, but it was thanks in large part due to the gamesmanship and shamelessness of Wambach to needle the referee. That ref has never officiated in another major tournament since, but does the USWNT have another player like Wambach, willing to be a pest and do whatever it takes to win?
The players have credited defender Kelley O’Hara as being the one who brings out the most aggression on the field — “I think we could all hear her voice the whole game,” Rose Lavelle said, as if she was putting it as politely as she could, after the U.S. beat New Zealand. O’Hara was also the one who gave a post-Sweden pep talk about being “absolutely ruthless” going forward.
Then there’s Megan Rapinoe. Given her performances so far in Japan, it seems unlikely she will reprise her heroic role from 2012, but maybe she’ll dazzle for old time’s sake.
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Although the Americans have comfortably had the upper hand in this rivalry and are the favorites heading into Monday’s semifinal, tournament soccer is often different, and Canada in particular has seemed to learn how to step it up on the world stage. The USWNT has played Canada more than any other team in history, and while that could be an advantage for the U.S., it’s certainly an advantage for the Canadians too.
Canada’s coach, Bev Priestman, said that she, a non-Canadian, is more motivated by the last time the U.S. faced her team. In February, the U.S. barely eked out a 1-0 win after a tight match in which Canada did well to cut off the Americans’ chances for most of the game.
“I do see the same opportunities available that we’d seen in February, so I’m excited,” Priestman said. “We have some freshness in areas where they don’t, which is critical in a game like this. The Canadian-U.S. rivalry is there — I don’t need to even talk about it, it’s a given. But more importantly, when you talk about having a strong vision and that driving everything, this is the game that changes the color of the medal.”
There’s one more thing that stands out about that 2012 semifinal, and it’s the sheer brilliance of Christine Sinclair. She put the Canadian team on her back, scoring three goals while the supporting cast around her wasn’t nearly as talented.
That’s still a bit of a future worry for this Canada team: once 38-year-old Sinclair retires, will the goals still come as often? The team does have quality attackers in Janine Beckie and Nichelle Prince, with fullbacks Ashley Lawrence and Alysha Chapman also adding attacking threat when they bomb forward. But Sinclair is irreplaceable.
No man or no woman has scored more international goals on the planet than Christine Sinclair, who now boasts 187 goals for Canada. (She’s also two shy of tying Christiane’s record for the most goals in women’s Olympic play.) But crucially, Sinclair isn’t just a goal-scorer — she is the glue of the attack. It’s easy to see in Portland, where she plays for the Thorns, in the middle of the field: Her vision for distribution is impeccable, she’s excellent at keeping possession in transition, and she sets up her teammates as much as she scores herself.
The USWNT will need to limit Sinclair’s impact, in whatever form it comes. If not, Sinclair, who may be playing in her last Olympics, could be playing for a gold medal to cap off her international career.