One hundred and twenty-two minutes of pure unadulterated chaos. That’s the only way I can think of to describe the 2012 Olympic semi-final showdown between Canada and the United States of America.
Bitter rivals since the first game in 1986, these two teams have always put on a show whenever they play each other--aggressive tackles, shit talking from the Americans with polite trash talk from the Canadians, and sometimes a fair amount of controversy. I feel completely confident in saying this game…was the MOST bonkers, competitive, crazy game I have ever seen between Canada and the USA.
Let’s start from the beginning, shall we?
Picture it; Old Trafford, Manchester, England. August 6, 2012. It all comes down to this game. This decides who’s moving to the final and who’s going home having come so close and yet so far. The Americans have never lost to Canada in a major tournament, and not in any event since 2001. Canada is on fire, looking to make history and defeat the Americans.
USA lines up with Hope Solo in goal; defenders are Amy LePeilbet, Christie Rampone, Rachel Buehler, and Kelley O’Hara - in her first Olympics after Ali Krieger tore her ACL in qualifying; Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, Lauren Cheney, and Tobin Heath in the midfield with Alex Morgan and her mentor, legendary Captain Abby Wambach, at forward.
They’re all paired against goalkeeper Erin McLeod; defenders Rhiannon Wilkinson, Carmelina Moscato, Lauren Sesselman and Marie-Ève Nault; commanding the midfield are Diana Matheson, Desiree Scott, and Sophie Schmidt with Melissa Tancredi, Jonelle Filigno and Captain Christine Sinclair leading the charge. Many fans and pundits felt that if ever there was a team who could defeat the Americans and live as legends forever, it would be this squad.
The first twenty minutes were all USA, as Canada struggled to get out of their own half, fending off vicious attacks as the Americans came out swinging, hoping to score early and set the tone. In a plot twist that only the Canadian fans love, Christine Sinclair spins around Kelley O’Hara and sends the ball right under Hope Solo giving the Canadians the 1-0 lead, and it wouldn’t be the first or last time they held the lead in the match.
Determined not to let this shake them, the Americans quickly get back on the attack, sending in balls left and right, but they’re off the mark or easily handled by McLeod. Canada looks to be sitting pretty with the one goal lead, defending well and keeping the USA locked out of scoring. When halftime rolls around, it’s an almost disbelieving scoreline, Canada 1 – USA 0.
It takes a few moments for both teams to find their footing at the start of the second half but then things start going bonkers. Rapinoe takes her place at the corner flag, sizing up her teammates, seeing where she wants to put it, as players from both teams jockey for position. Rapinoe takes a running start and sends the ball on what can only be described as an outrageous in-swinger and it somehow, someway, makes it past Sinclair, Sesselman, and McLeod and finds a home in the back of the net. This was such a crazy angle, I had to re-watch it in slow motion a few times to understand how that ball went in.
Game on. Canada 1 – USA 1.
Canada aren’t going down without a fight, although you can tell they’re now a little reluctant to send too many players forward and that’s giving the Americans plenty of chances that they just can’t seem to put away. As in the first half, they’re peppering the goal and seeing if anything sticks. Meanwhile, Canada stay patient and Kaylyn Kyle comes in for Jonelle Filigno, bringing in fresh legs. Within two or three minutes, Kyle sends in a pass to Tancredi, who looks up and sees Sinclair in the penalty box. Tancredi doesn’t hesitate and sends in a cross that Sinclair redirects with her head right past a failing Solo, who just couldn’t get into position quick enough. It’s a brace for Sinclair and USA fans can’t quite believe they are once again trailing.
Canada 2 – USA 1.
But, have no fear! Megan Rapinoe is here! With numbers forward in Canada’s defensive third, O’Hara sends in a cross to Rapinoe, who settles it and then rips it across the face of goal - ricocheting off the far post and into the net!
Canada 2 – USA 2.
A truly magnificent effort and goal, but it would be for naught. Less than two minutes later, Canada wins the corner and everyone lines up to try and make some magic happen. LePeilbet is the only American defender in the box, with Solo trusting her to do her job. The ball is sent in and it lands RIGHT AT THE HEAD OF SINCLAIR, WHO SENDS IT PAST LEPEILBET! LePeilbet moved out of position off her line and the ball went past her and a screaming Solo. Canadians fans are going delirious at this turn of events, drowning out the American fans as they celebrate not only a hat trick for Captain Canada, but a possible defeat of the Americans in the Olympic semi-final. John Herdman rushes out to the touchline, shouting instructions at Sinclair to close this game out (and he’s right to feel that way). Canada are twenty minutes and some change away from winning this game and advancing to the Olympic final.
Canada 3 – USA 2.
This is where things really start to go haywire. In the 77th minute, McLeod is giving instructions to her teammates, gesturing for them to get forward. The referee Christina Pederson, blows her whistle and DEEMS THAT ERIN MCLEOD HAS HELD ONTO THE BALL TOO LONG, awarding an indirect free kick to the Americans. Full disclosure, I wanted the USA to win, but even I couldn’t believe the call. The six-second rule stopped being used before that ref was even born. The Canadians argue against it, but she holds firm to the decision. The Canadians line up 7 on the wall as the rest scatter off to the right side, desperate to make sure the Americans can’t find their way back into this game. As the only goal scorer, Rapinoe once again takes the shot and the ball goes straight for Marie-Ève Nault, who turns her body to avoid getting smashed in the face…
And has the ball bounce off her elbow instead. Every American in the stadium, player and fan alike, are howling for a handball. Of course, if this had happened to a USA player they would’ve kept quiet, but any opportunity and any advantage, no matter how shady, to get a goal must be taken. God forbid the USA lose a game fair and square in front of not only thousands of fans live, but millions watching at home. I despise the handball rule, especially if you can see with your own two eyeballs it was an accident. Yes, you should know by now to keep your arms down, but it’s simply human nature to not want to take a straight shot to the face. Pederson is a lot braver than me because if I saw Melissa Tancredi marching up to me like that, I would seriously rethink every decision that lead me to this point.
As a side note, seeing a visibly upset Melissa Tancredi trying to compose herself, her hand raised in an attempt to stay calm was funny in and of itself. Seeing her lose that battle and tell the ref to get her shit together was HILARIOUS. I was waiting for her to just start swinging.
So now Abby Wambach steps up to the ball, thousands of Canadian fans booing Pederson and undoubtedly wishing the most painful things they can think of to happen to her. I timed it, and the Canadian fans booed for exactly one minute and twenty seconds. Moving on, Wambach does a couple of dance moves, trying to psyche out McLeod. A little two step here, little hop there. Counts her steps a few times and finally kicks the ball, scoring the goal to send both these teams into overtime.
Canada 3 – USA 3.
Fast forward to the second half of overtime. Everyone is exhausted. Rachel Buehler has already left the game with an injury, it’s do-or-die time and neither side is giving the other an inch. It’s the one hundred and nineteenth minute and Wambach strikes what she (and all the fans) thought was the game winner. But McLeod, determined to redeem herself, stretches herself to full height and gets just enough of her hand on the ball to make it hit the crossbar. Every fan is on their feet, adrenaline coursing through their bodies as they watch this epic battle royale. Fingernails have been bitten to the quick, hair has been pulled every which way, sleeves have been rolled up and down - the fans simply do not know what is going to happen next. It’s anyone’s game.
The clock is winding down. Will this go to penalties? Will Wambach perform another miracle play alá Brazil 2011? Will Captain Canada make it four goals and send her team to the finals? Three fucking minutes of stoppage time. I’ll let Ian Darke tell it better than me.
“If somebody in the final 60 seconds can’t grab a fourth and ultimately winning goal. Wambach, space on the right-hand side for Heather O Reilly. Morgan in the box, Wambach in the box. Here comes the cross. OH IT’S IN! ALEX MORGAN HAS DONE! BARELY THIRTY SECONDS TO GO! IT’S 4-3 TO THE UNITED STATES! TEARS ON THE FACE OF ABBY WAMBACH. ALEX MORGAN HASN’T SCORED SINCE THE OPENING MATCH AGAINST FRANCE AND SHE JUST MAY HAVE PUT THE UNITED STATES INTO THE GOLD MEDAL MATCH AGAINST JAPAN!”
What a beautiful – BEAUTIFUL – cross from Heather O’Reilly. She knew exactly where she wanted to put it as she saw Alex Morgan pushing forward and Baby Horse made no mistake, jumping like her life depended on it and sending the ball past McLeod. With less than thirty seconds to go, the Americans had won the game. Canadian players slowly crumple to the ground in exhaustion and disbelief.
How must it feel to score a hat trick and still lose? Do the Americans truly win no matter what? And if not, what would it take to finally defeat them? As Canadian players settled into quiet shock and disappointment, the fans would never let them forget that Pederson was the one who had cost them the game with not one but two controversial calls. What could’ve happened, had one of those calls not been made? We may never know. All that matters is that the Americans rallied back time and time again to produce the greatest rivalry game ever played.