XI from ’12: [No. 2] An epic USA-Canada Olympic semifinal

Dan Lauletta December 31, 2012 14

The USA-Canada 2012 Olympic semifinal will go down as one of the greatest games ever played. (Photo by Stanley Chou/Getty Images)

When Alex Morgan headed home the latest goal ever scored in a women’s FIFA competition she not only added a brick to her rapidly growing legacy, she decided one of the classic games ever played in women’s soccer and the sport as a whole. The Olympic semifinal between the United States and Canada contains all the elements of a classic sporting event. It was an important match played between border rivals in an iconic arena that included a transcendent individual performance, three comebacks, a controversial penalty, and a dramatic finish.

The U.S.-Canada series has not always been competitive enough to create a rivalry based on anything besides the 5,500 miles of border that separates the countries. But on August 6, 2012, at famed Old Trafford in Manchester, England, the mood was as chippy as it was dramatic, never more so than the moment Melissa Tancredi stepped on Carli Loyd’s face while the U.S. midfielder lay on the ground in the 55th minute.

Tancredi got away with her transgression, but that was hardly the most talked about refereeing decision on the evening. Canada led 3-2 in the 77th minute when goalkeeper Erin McLeod was dubiously called for holding the ball too long. The U.S. was awarded an indirect free kick from inside McLeod’s area. The Canadians appeared to have cleared the ball but a penalty was called after Megan Rapinoe’s drive glanced off Marie-Eve Nault’s hand. Abby Wambach converted the penalty bringing the U.S. from behind for the third time.

The impetus for the Americans playing from arrears all game long was Christine Sinclair. The 29-year old striker was born to score goals, having done it at every level up to and including the international stage. Never before though, had Sinclair played so splendidly in such an important contest. She broke early U.S. momentum with a goal on 22 minutes courtesy of sublime footwork and finishing in close.

When Rapinoe’s corner sneaked through Lauren Sesselman’s legs for an equalizer in the 54th minute, it looked like the U.S. had seized momentum they would carry to the gold medal match. Sinclair was far from done, though. Taking a pass from Tancredi—who by the 67th minute should have been sent off for the Lloyd incident—Sinclair redirected it with her head past Hope Solo for a 2-1 lead. Rapinoe came to the rescue again three minutes later, settling a ball in the top corner of the penalty area and cracking it in off the far post with a perfectly struck shot that goes down as one of the best Olympic goals scored in the men’s or women’s tournament.

Canada’s 2-1 lead had lasted all of three minutes but so too did any safe haven for the United States. In the 73rd minute, Sinclair got on the end of a corner and completed the hat trick with another header that left Solo helpless. However, the match turned out from that point. Christine Sinclair had sewn up one of the great individual efforts ever put forth in a global women’s soccer tournament.

Four minutes later the sequence began that saw the U.S. get a third equalizer inside of 26 minutes. The world waited for the U.S. to break their northern neighbors and find a game-winner but it proved elusive. The Canadians were hanging with the Americans not only with impressive soccer but through a fierce will to win that never faded. When Wambach missed a sitter late in regulation and found the crossbar late in extra time it was looking like it may not be the U.S.’ day.

Penalty kicks loomed when, three minutes into stoppage time of the second extra time, Heather O’Reilly lifted the cross into the area that Morgan finished by poking it too high for McLeod to reach but just under the crossbar for the 4-3 U.S. victory.

The United States eventually won the gold medal. Canada returned three days later in Coventry and won the bronze on a goal deep into regulation stoppage time by Diana Matheson.

The bronze medal and epic semifinal brought a heroine’s welcome for Sinclair and her mates upon their return to Canadian soil. A year earlier they had crashed out of the World Cup having scored a single goal against seven conceded in consecutive losses to Germany, France, and Nigeria. Their coach, Carolina Morace, left Germany pleading for ways to find new female soccer players in Canada.

This time, under the direction of John Herdman, the Canadians played world-class football and Sinclair became one of the country’s most beloved athletes practically overnight. The Olympics ignited a women’s soccer flame in Canada that has a chance to burn through the 2015 World Cup that they will host. And though they did not win gold, the 2012 Olympic team will forever be linked with the U.S. for enthralling the world with two of the most invigorating hours of soccer most of us have ever seen.

  • Steglitz49

    Canada forgot how Iwashimizu handled Morgan the previous year.

    Most would say that the best soccer was the second half of Japan-France. It was a stunning half of verily outstanding play — men’s or women’s — and some even claim one of the best quality ever played.

    • Chris

      What are you talking about? Morgan came on in the final and got a goal, an assist, and got a Japanese defender sent off. Japan certainly did not “handle” Morgan.

      • Don B.

        I think he’s referring to Japan sacrificing a bishop to prevent the US queen from checkmating their king. That red card prevented a winning goal.

        • Steglitz49

          Verily. Thank you.

          In short, Canada forgot Iwashimizu’s “Non passerán!” attitude. Morgan tumbled; Iwashimizu walked. A few minutes later a 20-year old Saki Kumagai became an iconic figure in women’s soccer.

  • wonka51

    I’m sorry, I just have to say it; Tancredi shouldn’t have been sent off. The ref was right there when the “incident” happened, and just because it looks like something in slo-mo, if you look at the replay you see she wasn’t looking at her, probably even didn’t know she was on the ground underneath her. And I know FIFA isn’t a reference, but even they didn’t look into it, because there’s just no way you can proove it was intentional.
    Let’s also not forget about that Rapinoe handball in the box that wasn’t called…. right before one was called on Nault.

    • Allie

      Poor officiating all around. I certainly agree with you on the Tancredi point, I wish USWNT fans would just let it go.
      I’d say that Rapinoe handball was the most notable non-call of the day. ESPECIALLY because of the context in which she called the handball on Marie Eve Nault. The handball that the PK was awarded on was quite obviously “ball to hand”, NOT “hand to ball”. Even if it wasn’t necessarily the correct call, she could’ve at least been consistent with her officiating.

      • Steglitz49

        Some would allege that had the Olympic final been officiated to the same standard as the world Cup final was, Japan would have won.

        Oddly enough, the Japanese ladies seem to have coped with the result. It could be a reflection of the quality of their captain. Also, if your country has been wrecked by an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear disaster and you are the reigning world champions, maybe you can take the rough with the smooth.

    • Steglitz49

      “they [FIFA} didn’t look into it” — a bit of technicalities might not come amiss.
      — Do you know whether the USA made a formal complaint about this incident? I do not, though seeing that USA won, why would they?
      — The reason so few yellow and red cards are appealed is that an appeal leads to a total review and can result in a more severe censure than the decision by the referee. (As far as I know, Japan never protested the red card to Iwashimizu in the 2011 final. Why would they?)

    • Haley

      I agree that you can’t retrospectively prove intentionality, but Tancredi herself has hinted that she meant to do it by trash talking the USWNT and commenting about Carli’s “flat head”

      • wonka51

        Actually, if you look closely at the interviews she did, she says that it absolutely was not deliberate. Plus, if you watch that interview, you would know that the TV show host said the words “flat head”. I don’t know about you, but I really wouldn’t argue over something everyone knows was an accident (at least in Canada) in that kind of context. They were there for a little while, trying to keep things light and funny. But let’s not put words in her mouth.

        • Steglitz49

          As Kernel Thai has remarked, the German referee also had a bad day at the office in the Final, something which did not escape the German media. Seeing that German media all but ignore women’s soccer, their censure should be viewed as particularly severe.

          An interesting observation is that while internationally there is considerable sympathy for the Nadeshiko, the Canadians might want to reflect on why their issues did not much stir the hearts and minds.

          In short, high time to invoke Healey’s first law of politics.

    • Kernel Thai

      I dont believe the Tancredi stomp was deliberate. It looked to me like she lost her balance and put her other foot down. The whole thing could have been defused if Tancredi had showed a moments compassion. Intent or no she did step on another players head. The Rapinoe ball never gets called in a big game. A non intentional hand contact while a player is settling the ball in the box is not the same as handball on a shot on goal. On the Rapinoe ball. her arm in a mostly vertical position. An example of a missed hand ball was Heath in the final. The fact that there is a 6 second rule is simple enough and no, it not the one rule that comes with a warning. The Nault hand ball was a judgment call. Was the elbow out? Yes. Was it deliberate? No. Did the official have a bad game? Yep. But after all was said and done, there were still 40 minutes left to play. The US won because they played the full 123 while Canada hoped to hang on.

  • Quick As A Flash

    the luck of the red white and blue

    OK so Sinc should not have accused the referee of being on the take but after a extremely dubious call to award the free kick. But the follow up call for a hand ball when the player was clearly unsighted was beyond belief.

    I always like to have a theory to explain even the extraordinary so here I go. The referee believed that the US was the better team and in the excitement of the moment was inadvertently helping the team. She was simply not experienced enough to deal with the tension of the moment.

    Tough call for Canada but they went home heroines anyway. Sinc has become an icon for Canadian womens sports and deservedly so.The referee will never overcome her mistake.

    • USWNT junkie

      Couldn’t agree more, it was probably my worst moment as a USWNT fan, I felt horrible that they won in the way that they did, but either way it was going to be a game no one will ever forget.