Four hours after the Canada-U.S. women's soccer Olympic semi-final began, it came to an end in the way most had predicted. The top-ranked American women [cue the Guess Who] scraped through with a victory over the ninth-ranked Canadians, but it took a lengthy rain delay, two periods of extra time and a crucial winning goal by substitute Natasha Kai to send them through.
What went wrong for the Canadians? Well, part of the problem came from their decision to play a defensive strategy throughout, which resulted in them only creating a few chances. They fell behind early on a Angela Hucles strike in the 12th minute, but captain Christine Sinclair made no mistake on one of the only attacking chances the Canadians picked up, though, smashing a long drive past U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo in the 30th minute to equalize. The Americans held the majority of the possession and created most of the game's scoring chances, but tenacious defending from Martina Franko, Emily Zurrer and Candace Chapman, stellar goalkeeping from substitute Karina LeBlanc (who came in after starting goalkeeper Erin McLeod went down with an injury on the first U.S. goal) and some inept finishing from the Americans meant that no one scored again for the remainder of regulation time.
In the first overtime period, the U.S. struck quickly as Kai made an immediate impact after coming on as a substitute. Kai used her tremendous speed to gain a half-step on Zurrer and rise to head a cross in from only six yards out. After the goal, Canada turned their own pressure up and even created a goal-line scramble that could have easily led to an equalizer, but some heads-up defending from Carli Lloyd saw the ball cleared without incident. The Canadians threatened once or twice more, but seemed to run out of gas.
Part of the problem was surely due to the heat and humidity: a thunderstorm postponed the game for over an hour, and undoubtably left its atmospheric effects behind. Injuries and forced substitutions also likely played a role: manager Even Pellerud was forced to use one of his substitutions early on to bring in LeBlanc for McLeod, then had to bring on Brittany Timko for Melissa Tancredi after she seemed to aggravate the injury she picked up in the group stage, and finally was forced to replace Timko with Jonelle Filigno in the 92nd minute after she crashed into Solo and went down hard. Meanwhile, the Americans made all three of their substitutions late in the match, and the fresh legs certainly seemed to help.
Another issue came from Pellerud's tactical decisions. The 3-4-3 formation he favoured had a lot of promise for attacking football, but it wasn't utilized to its utmost potential. The Canadians kept trying to crash through the brick wall of the U.S. central defence with long balls, but the Americans proved aerially superior and the Canadian attacks came to naught. A 3-4-3 tends to work best when the three strikers are laterally supporting each other in close proximity and are in turn receiving close vertical support from their attacking midfielders. That allows for plenty of passing options on the ground, and gives you the chance to pick apart a formidable defence. Instead, Canada stuck with the long ball even when it clearly wasn't working, and it may have cost them in the end.
The real wasted opportunities were early in the tournament, though. The U.S. was always going to be a massive challenge: after all, according to the CBC commentators, Canada's women's senior team hasn't beat the Americans since 2001. If the Canadians had buried one more of the numerous chances they had against China, or put in a better effort against Sweden, they wouldn't have finished third and wouldn't have drawn the U.S. this early. If they had won a quarterfinal and lost to the U.S. in the semis, they still would have had a shot at the bronze medal. As it is, their Beijing Olympic dreams end here.
The Canadians have nothing to be ashamed of from their play in this match, though. They gave it their all, and they came exceptionally close to knocking off the world's best women's soccer team, from a country that offers tremendous advantages over Canada in terms of women's soccer infrastructure, funding and eligible pools of athletes to draw from. Moreover, making the quarterfinals in your first Olympic appearance isn't a bad showing either. Most of their squad is extremely young: McLeod, Sinclair and Chapman are a few of the older players, and they're only 25. They're continuing to make great progress, and they'll be back. The world had better watch out.
Related: My live blog of the game over at Sporting Madness.