Canada

Tokyo soccer semifinal pits Canada against the U.S. again, and the Americans just might be beatable

The London 2012 Olympics was a coming-out party for the Canadian women’s soccer team. In capturing the country’s first medal — bronze — in a traditional team sport since 1936, the team also captured the hearts of a nation.

That group of enchanted supporters included the likes of Ashley Lawrence, Jessie Fleming, Jordyn Huitema and many of their colleagues on the current Canadian team, which will face the United States in a rematch of a devastating semifinal loss nine years ago.

“Just really experiencing that through the TV at home with my family, I just remember watching every game, making sure that, 30 minutes before kickoff, everything was set up and that I didn’t miss one minute. It was just so cool and really rare to have experienced,” Lawrence told Sportsnet’s “Top of Her Game” earlier this year.

Canada’s squad in London, led by newly appointed head coach John Herdman, did not arrive as a medal favourite after finishing last at the previous Olympics. But support had swelled by the time Canada faced the U.S. in the tournament semifinal, a match since dubbed “the greatest game of women’s soccer ever played.” The 122-minute affair ended in a 4-3 loss for the underdog Canadians, who felt like the result was taken from them after some perplexing decisions by Norwegian referee Christina Pedersen, including a rarely called six-second violation against Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod in the 78th minute that turned into a free kick which, in turn, elicited a penalty call, giving the Americans the tying goal and a lifeline to an eventual victory.

Messages of encouragement started flowing from Canada to Manchester, England, in the aftermath of the loss. Players began realizing the impression they were making back home. A last-gasp win against France in the bronze-medal game days later further endeared Canadians to the team and turned players such as captain Christine Sinclair and midfielder Diana Matheson, who scored the goal that got Canada on the podium, into household names.

Fleming, 14 at the time and making her debut in the Canada youth program, remembers watching on television with her father, understanding that she was seeing something extraordinary, something she might eventually be able to do herself. Huitema, too, knew she wanted to be a part of that kind of thrilling contest. Sixteen of the 18 players on Canada’s current squad who did not play in London would have been between 11 and 18 years old at the time.

Impressionable ages, to be sure. So while the motivation for Monday’s match will be clear for London 2012 veterans McLeod, Sinclair, Desiree Scott and Sophie Schmidt, it will also be personal to the team’s younger players.

Managing that emotion will be key this time around. The Canadians can be at their best when playing with a chip on their shoulder, and that chip should be apparent on Monday. But the team can’t let a sense of redemption for 2012 overwhelm them.

This might be Canada’s best chance at beating the U.S. The world’s No. 1 team hasn’t looked itself over the course of the Games. The Americans, for once, look beatable, lacking their normal sharpness and cohesion. If the Canadians are able to hold their line against the wealth of attacking options the U.S. boasts and get creative players like Nichelle Prince and Lawrence running at defenders like Kelley O’Hara, there’s a chance to turn the tables.

Emotion is what drew many Canadians to the team in 2012. Lawrence remembers seeing Sinclair’s love and passion for the game during the semifinal against the U.S. It was why Lawrence played, too, why she still does, what inspired her to follow her soccer dreams. But keeping that in check Monday could drive the team to new heights, inspiring even more Canadians.

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