The United States women’s soccer team battled an old, familiar foe all the way to the last minute of extra time to book their trip to the Olympic finals.
Canada drew first blood midway through the first half, with a spectacular play from captain Christine Sinclair to beat the defense and put the ball past U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo. The 1-0 score held into the second half, despite relentless pressure from a strong American offense.
Megan Rapinoe finally got the U.S. on the scoreboard in the 54th minute. Possibly the best long-ball passer in the women’s game, Rapinoe managed to bend a corner kick directly into the goal. She really ought to send some thank-you notes to the Canadian defense for that gift.
Canada reclaimed the lead in the 68th minute, after a precise header from Sinclair edged just out of Solo’s reach. Momentum didn’t last long, however, as Rapinoe stepped up once again to level the score 2-2. The midfielder was in top form, dribbling into space and firing a laser strike from just inside the box.
In a flash of deja vu, Sinclair headed another ball past Solo â€” a virtual carbon copy of her previous goal. Her hat-trick gave Canada a 3-2 lead in the 72nd minute, and brought her Olympic total to six.
At times, the gripping semifinal threatened to spiral out of control. Sloppy tackles, tinged with desperation, left players on both sides doubled-over in pain or limping off the field. But it wasnâ€™t a vicious shove or slide that gave the U.S. a penalty kick in the 79th minute. The penalty was given for an incidental handball in the box, after an indirect free kick inside the box caught a Canadian playerâ€™s arm. Amid boos from fans disappointed with the questionable decision, Abby Wambach nailed the kick. She has now scored in each Olympic match.
The score remained 3-3 through regular time and all the way to the last possible moment before penalties. In the last minute of stoppage time, at the end of the second half of overtime, a last-ditch cross from Heather Oâ€™Reilly found Alex Morgan, who artfully headed it into the back of the net. Ecstatic cheers erupted from the American side, while their northern neighbors fell into stunned silence. The USWNT pulled off a 4-3 coup in the last 30 seconds of the match.
Rapinoe’s performance this tournament stands apart, a true feat for a team that has no shortage of stars. She doesn’t have quite the strength of Abby Wambach, the jogo bonito of Alex Morgan, the heart of Christie Rampone or the charisma of Hope Solo, but she has been every bit important, if not more so.
Rapinoe is the scrapper. She’s the fight. The will. She makes a mistake â€” an errant pass, a turnover â€” and she fixes it. She digs it out, chases the ball up and down the field until she gets it back.
Her seemingly boundless energy and passion kept the United States in the game, no thanks to a defense that apparently decided marking Christine Sinclair â€” one of the worldâ€™s top goal-scorers â€” wasnâ€™t a priority.
This semifinal was a battle, well-fought, between two longtime rivals. Next up, the USWNT will take on another familiar foe. Japan defeated France 2-1 to make it through to the finals. So, once again, the U.S. ladies face Japan in the final of a major tournament. The two last met in the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup championship match, where Japan topped the Americans in a penalty shootout.
2012 Summer Olympics, Gold Medal Match: United States vs Japan â€” Thursday, August 9 at 2:45p ET (NBC Sports Network)
Credit: Jason Cairnduff/ZUMA Press/Newscom