There’s nothing friendly about a match between the U.S. and Canada. The CONCACAF rivalry has been heavily dominated by of the Americans, who coming into today had a 25-game, decade-long unbeaten streak going against Canada, but rarely without a tough fight.
Today the North American neighbors met at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, the USA’s home sendoff before heading to London in search of their third-straight gold medal. Early on, it looked like it would be more like their last meeting, the Olympic Qualifying Final, when the U.S. embarrassed Canada in Vancouver with a 4-0 blowout.
With Tobin Heath starting her second straight match on the midfield’s left wing, Megan Rapinoe holding down the right side, Lauren Cheney as the attacking central mid and Kelley O’Hara as a forward-thinking left back in what Pia Sundhage called her “strongest” starting eleven, Canada found themselves on the defensive early and often.
Unlike recent matches where the U.S. started slow and built their way up to victory, the team was not without their chances early. Rapinoe made sure of that. With the bulk of the possession in the U.S.’s favor, the creative, fiery midfielder was involved in nearly every scoring opportunity, placing the ball where it needed to be for her forwards or taking it to goal herself. But Rapinoe and her teammates simply couldn’t connect. With stout defense and the sure-handed Canadian keeper Erin McLeod in their way, the magic touch for the U.S. was missing.
They’d finally break through in the fifteenth minute, however, with some help from Canada. Rapinoe sent in a cross from the edge of the penalty area that landed perfectly inside the six yard box. Wambach was just a step behind, but Canada’s Carmelina Moscato found herself on the end of it. Her attempt to clear it away instead sent the ball straight into her net for an own goal and an early 1-0 USA lead.
The game looked to be another U.S. blowout, if they could just finish their chances, instead it turned into a physical, chippy affair marked by fouls, referee controversy and injury. Wambach was fouled in the penalty area twice, but the referee let them play on. Midway through the first half, a tackle by Christine Sinclair on O’Hara was followed by a hard Shannon Boxx tackle on Kaylyn Kyle. Boxx was shown a yellow card, but it didn’t stop the two teams playing physical. Shortly afterward, Rapinoe was fouled, and her ensuing free kick into the penalty area nearly put the U.S. up by two, but Wambach just missed the connection and the ball sailed wide of the far post.
It wasn’t until the second minute of first-half stoppage time that Canada had their first real chance of the game, drumming up even more controversy. A Sinclair strike deflected off of Amy LePeilbet’s right leg, through her feet and hard at Hope Solo, who dove to knock the ball away before it crossed the line. But as the ball drifted to Solo’s left, Kyle was there for a follow-up that forced Solo to scramble to her feet and dive again, just corralling the it at the corner of the left post. Replays showed it may have moved over the line as Solo gained full possession, but it was too close to call.
With just a minute left, the U.S. countered. Alex Morgan latched onto a ball from Tobin Heath over the top and drove it into the penalty area, drawing McLeod out. Morgan then rocketed the ball at goal, only to have Lauren Sesselman, who slipped back to guard the line, knock it out with her body.
The U.S. came out for the second half on the attack once again, but were dealt a hard blow soon after the break. In the 49th minute, a challenge on Morgan by Moscato following a throw-in resulted in Morgan twisting her left knee. The team’s leading scorer in 2012 limped off the field, and was out for the rest of the match. Amy Rodriguez subbed in for Morgan.
Perhaps the U.S. was rattled after Morgan’s injury, but their first half spark was extinguished. Rapinoe continued to carry the torch, but the touch was not there for Wambach or Rodriguez to give the U.S. a more comfortable advantage.
Canada finally got the chance they were looking in the 57th minute when Christine Sinclair slotted the ball behind the defense and through inside the penalty area to Melissa Tancredi, who put the perfect touch on the ball to knock it over Hope Solo’s head, off the crossbar, and into the net.
It wasn’t until the final minutes of the match that the U.S. would regain their fire. A 76th minute substitution of the Canadian-American Sydney Leroux for O’Hara switched the U.S. into a 3-4-3 formation, looking for the go-ahead goal. And who would provide it? Megan Rapinoe, of course, with a left-footed strike from the left flank into the area, reminiscent of her famous assist against Brazil in the World Cup Quarterfinals, with Wambach and Rodriguez coming forward. Wambach got a touch on it, drawing the defense toward her, but got turned around and flicked it with her heel to Rodriguez, who poked it in from close range for the game-winner.
Clutch. American. Magic.
Leading up to the match, Rapinoe revealed that she was going to challenge the team to be more creative with goal celebration. And that they did. On a hot summer day, the team laid down on the field for a “snow angel” celebration, hearkening back to the last time they played at Rio Tinto, a 34 degree day with snow falling.
The U.S. will head to London next week to prepare for their opening group stage match against France, July 25. We’ll be following the news of Alex Morgan’s knee injury closely, and will report on any updates as soon as we get them.
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