First, I have a confession to make: I did not grow up playing such manly sports as football and hockey, but rather basketball in the winter and soccer in the summertime. And if that doesn’t seem odd to you, know that I am at least a fifth-generation Canadian, so I don’t come from a place where football is a game that you play with your feet. That said, while I played soccer for about 15 years (although it’s been a while–right now the only sport I take part in is binge-drinking), I usually can’t stand to watch it on TV. I just don’t think it’s a very exciting spectator sport, not when you don’t see 10 shots on goal and a 2-1 final is considered a high-scoring game. But in the Olympics, I’ll cheer for just about anything wearing a Canadian jersey (hell, I’ve even watched a couple women’s basketball games), and as such, I’ve started taking an interest in our national women’s soccer team. This afternoon, they faced off against the mighty U.S. women’s squad, a team they hadn’t beaten in over 10 years, and gave them all they could handle in what might just be the greatest women’s soccer game of all time.
For one thing, this game was incredibly high-scoring, especially by soccer standards, with the Americans prevailing in extra time 4-3. Hell, I could probably count on one hand how many times the Calgary Flames scored that many goals in a game this season, so that’s really saying something. But this game had it all, plenty of lead changes, outstanding set pieces, a couple controversial calls… everything but penalty kicks, and we were only about 30 seconds away from the shootout when the States scored the game-winning goal. What a contest!
Although the Americans were heavily favoured heading in, for some reason, I got the feeling that Canada could win this game. I guess watching countless hours of Canadian Olympic coverage will do that. But I felt that they put in a really solid effort against the host country in the quarters, and while I can’t honestly say this was the best team Canada has ever had (the last time I remember watching women’s soccer was the 2002 U-19 tournament in Edmonton, which produced a couple of today’s key players, mind you), I thought they might have what it takes to get the job done. Turns out I was almost right. Though things looked shaky for Canada with the U.S. pressing early, Christine Sinclair put the team on her back, scoring all three goals in a back-and-forth affair. No team ever had more than a one-goal lead in this one, and many of those leads didn’t last long.
Sinclair struck early, with a brilliant shot in the 22nd minute, and going into halftime with a 1-0 lead, I was thinking like a traditional soccer fan–can Canada keep the USA off the board to salvage the win? Little did I know that this wouldn’t be your typical 1-0 soccer game. Lesbian-American Midfielder Megan Rapinoe tied the game up in the 54th minute with a seeing-eye corner kick that found goal when Canada neglected to put a defender at the front post. A key mistake; crucial, really. As a young goalkeeper, I knew you always had to have a man at that spot so you could take up the middle of the net, but that mental lapse ended up costing Canada. Still, when Sinclair scored again off a header in the 68th minute, I went back into soccer-fan mode. “Okay, we only hafta hold ‘em off the scoreboard for another 20 minutes…”
Turns out, Canada couldn’t stop ‘em for two minutes, much less 20. Receiving a pass on the wing with space to shoot, Rapinoe banked a shot off the far post and into the net when defender Marie-Eve Nault didn’t provide much of a challenge. Oh great, now Canada needs three goals? This one might be headed to extra time, at best–or so I thought. But five minutes later, Sinclair scored again on an expertly-placed header off a corner, and I was ready to believe in miracles. Sinclair, the third-highest scoring female soccer player ever, was willing her team to victory today. And here they only had to defend for 15 minutes in order to play for gold.
But that’s when one of the most controversial moments you’ll ever see in championship soccer took place. In hockey, the refs always put away their whistles in the third period of a playoff game, letting the players decide who wins and loses. But in this case, referee Christiana Pedersen made an unbelievable call in the 80th minute that cost Canada the game. Now, to be fair to the ref, as a former keeper (I first took to the goal at age 10, and after some early success at the position, played goalie almost exclusively until the age of 18, when I realized that soccer was a women’s sport) I had said to myself earlier in the game that Canadian goalie Erin McLeod seemed to be hanging onto the ball for quite a long time before sending it downfield. I knew that there was a time limit for her to get the ball away–but I had always been told that you could bounce the ball to yourself to reset the “kick clock” provided that there wasn’t an attacker in your face. And while McLeod would bounce the ball lazily once or twice before booting it downfield, she still seemed to be holding it for quite a while. Mind you, there weren’t any Americans in her immediate vicinity–she was simply screaming for her teammates to get open. That being said, from my NHL playoff mentality, you don’t as an official whistle a keeper for delay of game in the 80th minute of an Olympic semi-final when both goalies had been taking their sweet time the entire game. That call was a shock to the system, to be sure.
And while the U.S. didn’t score directly on the indirect free kick, they did produce an unintentional hand-ball in the box, with Marie-Eve Nault being the guilty party. I knew the chances of Abby Wambach, the great U.S. striker, who at the time was tied with Sinclair for the second-most goals scored in women’s international competition, likely wouldn’t miss a penalty kick–and she placed it perfectly, which brought us into extra time.
That’s when things got physical. Both teams drew several hard fouls in the extra time frame, leaving many players hobbled–but you knew they weren’t going to leave the game unless they had to be carted off. With three minutes of stoppage time left until penalty kicks, both teams had their chances, but it was on another late corner that Alex Morgan headed the ball up over Sinclair and into the net for a last-second win. I was devastated–and I could only imagine how the Canadian players on the field felt.
The good news is that Canada still has a shot at bronze, although the French team is not to be taken lightly (unless they take to the pitch with no clothes on). I only saw the last half-hour of their loss to Japan, but the Frenchwomen clearly dominated that stretch of play, putting a hockey-like 24 shots at goal, and were a missed penalty kick away from sending the game into extra time. If today’s effort was any indication, the French team is going to press hard–but if Canada plays with the kind of heart and determination they showed today, they should definitely be able to compete. We could very well watch another exciting women’s soccer contest–if you’re willing to get up early (or show up a couple hours late for work), that is. As the bronze game gets second billing to the gold-medal final, it starts at 8 am Eastern Time on Thursday. I can only hope that the replay will be worth watching…