The texts started rolling in this morning, originating from two countries and seven people, around 3:55 Eastern. Oh yes, I was up too. Coffee ready, TV on, prepared for Olympic soccer.
My soccer-heads were ready to first-screen the U.S. women’s team playing Canada in the Olympic semifinals at 4 a.m., and second-screen texting me. The winner of the game was guaranteed gold or silver. My texters were divided into two: Team Canada and Team USA. BTW, if you grow up in Metro Detroit, it’s OK to admit you have a soft spot for Canada. The Detroit-Canada (city of Windsor) border is right there, and before Sept. 11 and now COVID, it was as easy to hop over and back like a fast-food drive-through. So we had some mixed loyalties going on.
Canada is cool. Canadian women’s soccer is good. And the USWNT is still the USWNT.
Canadian friend: I’m excited! Canada! Yeaaaaaaaah!
Team USA friend: We got this. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. Rapinoe.
Being a sportswriter brings strange situations. The people feel free to text or email me streams of non-sequiturs like I am their personal talk radio call-in or Siri. They have sports opinions and questions, and they feel I need to know them. Now.
ACTUAL TOKYO OLYMPICS TEXTS IN MY PHONE:
Text: What time/channel is the USWNT game?
Me, mentally: Uh, I am going to have to Google that, which BTW, YOU CAN TOO.
Text: Are they spelling Caeleb Dressel’s name right? It looks wrong. Caleb?
Me: No, it’s really Caeleb. (Aside: Yes, it does look weird, which is why I made sure to have that in my spell check like 7 years ago to be safe.)
Text: Wait, surfing and skateboarding is in the Olympics? What the hell?
Me: Very cool. Watch both. Enjoy. And read my stories on it. (sends links)
If you’re not fully into women’s soccer, which has only been a massive thing in the Olympics since like 1996, this Canada-USA matchup has a ton of backstory. The majority of Canada’s rosters have played, and were stars, for major U.S. college programs. Many of the U.S. and Canadian players have been facing off or playing together since they were kids. Many are on U.S. and overseas pro rosters together.
Canada’s captain, Christine Sinclair (University of Portland), has been a mainstay of the NWSL Portland Thorns. Sinclair is the greatest soccer player in Canadian history, in her fourth Olympics, and just everything you’d want in a forward. Back in the day, namely the 2011 World Cup in Germany, I got to work with her a lot in my job at ESPN and became a huge fan. There are now two generations of Canadian kids who wear Sinclair jerseys. She is that special.
It's been 20 years since the last time Canada beat the U.S., as in, the Americans were up 37-0 in wins. It’s not like the games were blowouts…Canada just didn’t have the luck or the final piece of magic needed to win.
The U.S. has broken Canada’s heart so many times. Fresh in mind is the 2012 London Olympics semifinal, thanks to Heather O’Reilly’s perfect corner kick set up to Alex Morgan for the winning header in the injury time phase of overtime.
This edition of Team USA was one of NBC’s major promotional storylines. Remember, come for the Simone Biles, stay for the Rapinoe and company. Best laid plans from 2020, not so much in 2021.
The U.S. looked flat, again, and Canada was trying to figure out their offense. Imagine 45 min with no shots on goal. Meanwhile, Canada’s back four easily diffused the U.S. from any set flow. But no worries, the U.S. has been here before and turned it on when needed. Right?!
USA text: I can’t stand this. Torture. We will end up in PKs. Again.
Canadian text: Ok, we’re not losing. good.
It all changed near the end of the scoreless first half. The bright spot of the U.S.’s lackluster run in the Tokyo Games has been the outstanding play of starting goalie Alyssa Naeher. She single-handedly has kept the U.S. going, from saving penalty kicks to being so steady during stressful moments.
Naeher went up for a save, surrounded by a close mob of American and Canadian players, and came down awkwardly on her right leg. Immediate pain. Naeher down. It looked bad.
Canadian text: OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG
USA text: They broke Naeher. We’re done.
Naeher was not broken. But she was done. Bring in the back-up, Adrianna Franch, and take a breath.
USA text: I have a very bad feeling.
Canada text: don’t want to say it – we’re going to win?
The text-a-damuses were correct: the U.S. was going to lose, but not in the way anybody expected. This scoreless torture flipped at the 75th minute, when American defender Tierna Davidson threw a hard tackle on Deanne Rose in the corner of the penalty area. The refs didn’t call it on the field, but it was rough enough to get sent for video review (VAR). If you want to make a soccer fan’s head explode, ask them what they think about VAR. Proceed with caution.
The VAR led to a penalty, and everybody expected Sinclair to take it. It was a rough tackle and the penalty was logical. Sinclair taking this was also a dead lock. Instead, she tapped Jessie Fleming, a former star at UCLA. Fleming was composed, and buried the PK in the right corner of the net.
And thanks to the U.S. not having an offense all tournament…soon game over. Scary to think the Americans would be held scoreless for three of five games in Tokyo. Doesn’t even seem possible.
Canadian text: I don’t think I can go to work today. Dead insane.
USA text: We sucked. Yay for Canada.
This edition of the USWNT lacked sparks or a range of gears. They were the same every game: flat, missing cohesion and praying for a missing magic switch. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is damned good. Sweden. Australia. Canada. Netherlands. Canada played with confidence and bravery. They went for it, and knew their defense was going to be the wall holding the Americans back.
The world is not afraid of playing the Americans, and when the U.S. failed to show some swagger, these teams took it to them even harder. I never saw the U.S. look like they were having fun or had flair. The conditions have been brutal in Tokyo, with the high heat and humidity, on top of the compressed game schedule. It’s a serious grind, but both teams have the shared experience. Canada looked cool and composed. The U.S. looked blah and searching.
After the game, the Canadians said they spotted some weaknesses in the U.S. back in February, during their friendly. Most of this USWNT has never lost to Canada. Until today. U.S. Soccer’s post-match notes point out the team is 51-4-7 overall against Canada. Aug. 2, 2021 and March 11, 2001 are the last two Canadian wins in 20 years.
The bronze medal game will not be a walk in the park against Australia. I can’t get a read if the U.S. has anything left, especially now with their heavy disappointment on their hearts.
There will be a lot of people cheering for Canada to win gold over Sweden. The Canadians have taken bronze the last two Olympics, and it’s time for a big upgrade. It’s like Messi finally winning the Copa America for Argentina last month, and crying at the long-elusive accomplishment. Seeing Sinclair winning gold for Canada would be a beautiful sight, and the soccer world on both sides of the border would smile.
Canadian text: If Sinc wins the gold, she gets a day with the Stanley Cup.
Texts over and out. Naptime.