Leander Schaerlaeckens: USA fights to finish in dramatic Olympic semifinal victory over Canada

The U.S. women gave it their all against Canada and it was just enough to see them through to the final to take on Japan.
Alex Morgan couldn’t quite cobble together a coherent explanation following the game. “I’m still in shock,” she said between chortles. “I don’t even know what just happened right now but we’re in the medal match, we’re in the final. I just got my head on it and I didn’t even see it go in.”

Abby Wambach shook her head in disbelief yet again. “For some reason we like to make things dramatic,” she said. “I’m speechless. This is ridiculous.”

That it was.

The U.S. women’s national team’s 4-3 Olympic semifinal win over Canada was all of those clichés: gob-smacking, shocking, insane. Not to mention the greatest honor that can be bestowed upon such an event by the modern lexicon, the serial period: Craziest. Game. Ever.

It resembled, at times, a cage fight hidden inside a wrestling match wrapped in a soccer game. Canada coach John Herdman had exclaimed ahead of the game that the U.S.’s “blocking tactics are highly illegal.” Yet if anybody took liberties with the rules concerning physical contact, it was the Canadians, waging a savage campaign of Hack-A-Abby and Hack-A-Alex.

Canada jumped ahead when Christine Sinclair and her cohorts danced through the U.S. defense and put them ahead in the 22nd minute. If the U.S. overran Canada for long stretches of the game, it relied on a great deal of luck too. In the 54th, Megan Rapinoe’s low, in-swinging corner somehow slipped past one defender, through the legs of another and into the net. And so swung the pendulum. Sinclair scored again. Rapinoe equalized again. Sinclair scored a third time.

The U.S., now with its backs against the wall, got a helping hand from the referee. Canada goalie Erin McLeod was improbably called for holding the ball more than six seconds in the 79th minute – an ultra-rare call – and on the ensuing Rapinoe indirect free kick in the box, Melissa Tancredi’s arm, protecting her face, was struck by the ball. The referee called a penalty, a second consecutive harsh call. Wambach then converted the spot kick.

In extra time resurfaced the sort of momentary magic that has a habit of making the U.S. women the darlings of a nation. Whereas in the summer of 2011, Wambach nodded in a 122nd-minute equalizer against Brazil in the World Cup quarterfinal, Morgan did the honors this time around.

By the 123rd minute, most everyone was hobbling, either from exhaustion or the brutality of the challenges they’d exchanged for the 122 preceding minutes. Yet substitute Heather O’Reilly cut open some space on the right flank and summoned a long, arcing cross that found Morgan’s pony-tailed head. The forward dinked it just over McLeod’s desperately reaching fingertips. More American pixie-dust. Sprinkled over the sport’s new favorite.

If a critical note is permitted on so joyous an occasion for American soccer, it is worth pointing out the disparity between this game and the other semifinal, in which Japan beat France 2-1. While the North American neighbors tussled, the sport’s new rising powers tried to outmaneuver each other – the highly-technical French playing a sophisticated game of tactical chess with press-masters Japan.

This game exposed what the other was lacking. There is much technical ability on both the U.S. and Canada, but their playing style emphasizes kicking and rushing and scrapping and fighting. The U.S. defense is simply picked apart with balls over the top. It has a surplus of talent in midfield and in the attack, but is very short on it in the back.

Logic would advise the U.S. to play a more technical, possession-oriented game. Care for the ball better, rely less on long balls and crosses and set pieces and in so doing take the pressure off the aging and battered Wambach and a shaky back line. Pia Sundhage talked of going to a more technical style after the U.S. scraped into the World Cup final, and tinkered with a 4-5-1 formation. But Morgan’s undeniable form made it impossible to leave her on the bench any longer.

So back to the 4-4-2 it was, a solution to a short-term problem that is hurting the U.S. in the long run. By sacrificing the extra central midfielder to accommodate Morgan up front, the U.S. went back to a route-one style, rather than modernize its game. What’s worse, the abilities of technical players like midfielders Lauren Cheney, Tobin Heath and (ironically) Morgan, who could pull off the distribution in this approach, aren’t optimized. At 24, 24 and 23, respectively, those three and striker Sydney Leroux (22) will form the core of this team in the future. So delaying the transition to a style that suits them best and curbs the American reliance on late-game drama seems counterproductive.

Regardless, the U.S. has reached the Olympic final, a rematch with Japan, which beat them on penalties in the Women’s World Cup final last summer, when the magic finally ran out.

And where the U.S. lacks finesse for the moment, it can still count on grit and can-do-ness. “This team doesn’t give up,” said Wambach. “This is what we’re about. This is what we’ve been working for since the day we lost to Japan in the World Cup final.”

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