United States of America 0-1 Canada
By Catherine Paquette
Above: Jessie Fleming celebrates after scoring the only goal of the game from the penalty spot. Photo: Getty Images
7,449 days. Let me repeat, 7,449 days: more than 20 years. That is how long it had been since Canada had beaten the United States in women’s football. The last time they came close was nine years ago during the 2012 London Olympic semi-final match, a game that remains burned into Canadian memories for a controversial refereeing call which led to an American equalizer and ultimate win. It should therefore come as no surprise that the Canadian women’s national team was underestimated entering this 2020 Tokyo Olympics semi-final, once again against its southern neighbours.
However, predicting the outcome of this match was not straightforward. The United States team had a talent packed squad which had underperformed from the start of the tournament. The assumption that they could finally find their well known American fighting spirit was not an outlandish one. Canada for their part had produced solid defensive performances which resulted in only three goals conceded in the whole Olympic tournament. But the team has been blighted by issues in the final third. Entering the match they had had seven shots on goal in their previous four matches, not a reassuring statistic.
If either team showed up, they could run away with the game. If both teams continued with their tournament performance trends, then it would be a close one. The latter of these occurred in the semi-final.
Bev Priestman, the Canada women’s national team coach, chose the same starting eleven she had used for the quarter-final against Brazil. The line-up used the usual 4-3-1-2 formation. USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski made several changes from the previous Netherlands game. Tierna Davidson got the start over Abby Dahlkemper in central defence, Rose Lavelle started instead of Sam Mewis in midfield and Alex Morgan replaced Carli Lloyd in the forward middle striker position. The Americans went with a 4-3-3 formation.
This game was 90 minutes of relatively lacklustre offence from both teams. While a penalty kick was the reason for the Canadians getting ahead, the true story of how Canada won this match is once again found in their defensive play.
Canada’s back line continued to perform admirably and proved difficult to penetrate for the US. While the American Olympic campaign had been blighted by offside calls ranging from four versus Sweden to a high of seven versus New Zealand, with an average of 5.75 per match, the Canadians’ defensive actions cut down the ability of the Americans to play through balls and resulted in just one American offside for the entire game. When danger did approach, Canada was able to deter it with clean smart defending.
Two individuals in the Canadian back line really stood out. Vanessa Gilles had an incredible game making 19 clearances during the match. This represents 45% of all clearances by the Canadian team and six more than then entire USWNT. Ashley Lawrence for her part continued to be Canada’s best performer this tournament. She entered the USA match as the Olympic women’s football player with the most touches on the ball. During this game she proved difficult to outmanoeuvre in defence and dangerous in her offensive moves.
The first half progressed exactly as one could have predicted based on previous play by both teams. They were evenly matched in possession, but unable to produce any viable chances on goal. The Americans found the Canadian defence was extremely difficult to break down. However, going forward Canada also encountered their own difficulties with their continued ineffectiveness in the final third.
The Americans lacked fluidity in their play, were often sloppy in their passing and without ideas trying to enter Canada’s box. The Canadians looked dangerous in transition but could not translate this into positive attacks, something that is turning into a long term problem. Neither team was consistent, the Americans looking particularly disjointed.
The second half started with a more offensive USWNT than prior to this point in the match. This did not change the first half’s general trends though. An hour into the match and neither team had registered a shot on goal. At this point both teams made several substitutions. It was the introduction of Lloyd, Rapinoe and Press replacing Morgan, Heath and Williams for the US that really changed the game. The USWNT immediately started looking more offensive and idea filled. In the minutes after the trio came on, Canada suddenly faced a series of dangerous shots on its goal.
Canada did respond with some offensive action of their own. After nearly ten minutes of continued American pressure, they were able to exit their own half and try to penetrate the USA’s final third. Then, while both were trying to go for the ball, Davidson fouled Canadian forward Deanne Rose in the box. After a VAR review the referee awarded a penalty to Canada.
Not wanting to take a penalty kick against her Portland teammate Adriana Franch who had replaced an injured starting goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher in the 30th minute, Canadian captain Christine Sinclair gave the ball to 23-year old Jessie Fleming. She produced a perfectly taken penalty shot into the corner that put the Canadians up 1-0.
The final twenty minutes of the match saw the Americans trying to attack Canada’s goal. Their attacks continued to be uncertain around the 18 yard box and were increasingly desperate. After 90 minutes of play the final whistle went which gave Canada a memorable win and a progression to the gold medal match.
Emotions were heavy after the game. Speaking afterwards, Megan Rapinoe stated how difficult the loss was “… it’s a bitter one to swallow. Obviously we never want to lose to Canada. I don’t think I’ve ever lost to Canada.”
However, she did try to put things in perspective: “So it’s a bitter one. Obviously there’s still a lot to compete for. That’s what I told the girls and what we talked about in the huddle. It’s not the colour we want, but there’s still a medal on the line. That’s a huge thing and we want to win that game, but yeah, this is … this sucks. It sucks.”
For the Canadians though it was a long awaited win, one that was redemptive for the 2012 London Olympic semi-final result. Sinclair stated “Our goal heading here was to change the colour of the medal after back-to-back bronzes. What a fight. I’m just so proud of our team. One more to go!”
Match winner Fleming spoke about the impact the win could have back home: “Sport changed my life. It teaches you so much… I know watching 2012 stuck with me and I hope we can have that same effect for young girls.” This game will influence young girls in Canada, just as the Matildas are influencing young girls in Australia and Sweden are influencing young girls back home.
Moreover, this tournament, culminating in this semi-final performance has confirmed several things. The first is that US women’s national team’s dominance is no longer assured. The second is that the world has caught up to the usual perennial finalists. Arguably this is a good thing.
Having a greater number of competitive nations who are capable of winning against anyone expands the game’s reach and its parity. It makes it more universal, and for women, more sustainable. No one team, no one nation, should dominate the game eternally, in any sport. It just isn’t healthy competition.
The best thing for all women and all fans going forward is that this recent increased competition and uncertainty continues. This means more investment, more chances and more skill continue to permeate throughout women’s football. It will lead to a brighter and more exciting future for all girls, women and fans who participate.
For now though, we will have a new Olympic winner. It will be crowned on Friday in either a defensively gifted Canada or an offensively brilliant Sweden.
Teams: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Naeher, Dunn, Sauerbrunn, O’Hara, Davidson, Ertz, Horan, Lavelle, Heath, Morgan, Williams. Substitutes: S. Mewis, Lloyd, Press, Sonnett, Rapinoe, Franch, Short.
CANADA: Labbé, Chapman, Buchanan, Lawrence, Gilles, Quinn, Scott, Sinclair, Fleming, Prince, Beckie. Substitutes: Zadorsky, Rose, Grosso, Leon, Sheridan, Huitema, Carle.
Scorer: Fleming (pen) 75.
Referee: Laura Fortunato (ARG).