Canada and the United States were tied at 1-1 after an hour of Monday’s breathtaking Olympic Games semi-final when Megan Rapinoe tried to control a cross inside her own penalty area. The U.S. midfielder’s touch was poor. The ball struck Rapinoe’s and rebounded off her left arm before she cleared it to safety.
Norwegian referee Christiana Pedersen allowed play to continue. Rule 12 of FIFA’s Laws of the Game state that a handball offense “involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with his hand or arm,” with consideration given to the movement of the hand toward the ball and the distance between the opponent and the ball. Any contact on this occasion had been purely accidental.
Pedersen contradicted her interpretation of that rule shortly afterward, with Canada leading 3-2 and the game approaching the final 10 minutes, when the ball struck Marie-Eve Nault’s elbow after the Canadian left-back instinctively turned her body to defend herself from Rapinoe’s close-range blast.
U.S. striker Abby Wambach converted the penalty kick against a backdrop of jeers from the crowd at Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium. That set up a dramatic extra-time period that eventually saw the two-time defending champions progress to Thursday’s gold medal game against Japan via Alex Morgan’s last-gasp winner.
Inconsistent Officiating Astounds Canadians
Pedersen’s penalty decision immediately followed another erratic call by the referee and compounded Canada’s sense of disbelief. Captain Christine Sinclair had fired her team ahead on three separate occasions – the last of which came with 17 minutes remaining — and they were within sight of a first major final.
U.S. Head Coach Pia Sundhage threw on Canadian-born striker Sydney Leroux and moved to a 3-4-3 formation as the Americans chased a third equalizer. They forced a corner on 77 minutes, but Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod gratefully clutched Rapinoe’s inswinger.
The Swedish-based stopper waited for her congested penalty area to clear before walking to the edge of her penalty area and sending the ball down field. It was an action that happens countless times in any game. Yet Pedersen whistled for an indirect free kick, ruling that McLeod had held onto the ball for more than six seconds.
Technically it was the correct decision under Rule 12, but consistent application would have seen Pedersen awarding multiple indirect free kicks at both ends throughout the game. Choosing this moment alone seemed bizarre. Tobin Heath touched the ball to Rapinoe, and her shot struck the unfortunate Nault.
Tidy Canadians Stretch U.S. Defense
Canada tired in the closing stages and the Americans’ impressive fitness, twinned with the adrenaline surge from their third equalizer, allowed the U.S. to swarm forward during extra-time. It had all been so different during the first hour when John Herdman’s side neatly moved the ball around.
Desiree Scott began the move that led to Sinclair’s opener on 22 minutes. The Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder intercepted Wambach’s chested layoff near the edge of Canada’s penalty area and Melissa Tancredi stepped in to launch a counter-attack. Nault, sensing the opportunity to break forward, provided support down the left touchline and threaded a precise return pass into the inside-left channel for Tancredi. Jonelle Filigno expertly created the space for Tancredi’s run, dropping off from her advanced striker role to drag Christie Rampone out of the U.S. back line.
Tancredi burst into the U.S. penalty box before laying the ball off to Sinclair. The 29-year-old calmly side-stepped Kelley O’Hara before drilling her shot low inside Hope Solo’s right-hand post.
Canada’s midfield trio of Scott, Sophie Schmidt and Diana Matheson had a numerical advantage in the center against Lauren Cheney and Carli Lloyd. Their ability to retain the ball was aided by Tancredi and Sinclair’s frequent dropping off from the front and support from their full-backs.
Right-back Rhian Wilkinson advanced on 27 minutes, combining with Tancredi to free up Scott on the right. She picked out Schmidt with an excellent deep cross, but the 24-year-old couldn’t direct her header back across goal into Solo’s far corner.
The Americans found occasional success when they moved the ball quickly from side to side, stretching Canada’s narrow midfield trio, and their set pieces are always a threat. Pedersen gifted the U.S. a free kick on 31 minutes after Wambach appeared to bulldoze an opponent to the ground. Morgan flicked Rapinoe’s delivery just wide of McLeod’s far post.
Morgan found space on the right wing six minutes later after Nault went to ground trying to cut out Amy Le Peilbet’s forward pass. The 23-year-old picked out strike partner Wambach at the near post, but the veteran couldn’t direct her header on target.
Manchester’s Familiar Rain Turns Into A Goal Downpour
Canada survived an early second-half lapse when Heath caught Matheson on the ball and set up Morgan down the left side. Wambach controlled Morgan’s cross on her chest but couldn’t keep her volley under McLeod’s crossbar. But another defensive slip brought the U.S. level at 1-1 through Rapinoe’s inswinging corner on 54 minutes.
Scott inexplicably left her position guarding the near post as Morgan made a run past her, followed tightly by her marker Filigno. Rapinoe’s delivery curled right into the spot that Scott had vacated, arching away from the backtracking Sinclair and dipping between center-back Lauren Sesselmann’s legs on its way into the net. Scott would have had a simple headed clearance had she stayed put.
Suddenly Sundhage’s side were pressing higher up the field, disrupting Canada’s passing rhythm and preventing their opponents from working the ball out of their own half. Herdman switched things around on 67 minutes, bringing in midfielder Kaylyn Kyle for Filigno and pushing Schmidt further forward. The changes brought immediate results.
Nault and Kyle worked a clever one-two while Tancredi peeled off to the left wing with an incisive run behind the U.S. defense. Nault slid a perfect pass behind Rampone for her teammate, and Tancredi cut inside before floating an enticing cross toward the penalty spot. Sinclair stole a yard of space in front of O’Hara and planted a clinical header inside Solo’s right post.
The lead lasted just three minutes, and again the U.S. response came out of nothing. O’Hara’s driven ball across the field fortuitously found Rapinoe on the right corner of Canada’s penalty box. The skilled winger, who’d been stifled in open play until then, moved the ball to her right before unleashing an unstoppable angled drive that flew in off McLeod’s far post.
Excitement levels among the enthralled fans rose further three minutes later when Sinclair completed her hat-trick, rising above Rachel Buehler to power a header high above the helpless Le Peilbet from Schmidt’s corner.
Americans Finally Gain The Upper Hand
The U.S. had gradually been gaining momentum during the second half, yet Canada continued to find ways to regain the lead. Pedersen’s capriciousness helped to finally turn the tide against them.
Wambach could have won the game in regulation after a swift U.S. counter on 85 minutes. Kyle’s poor layoff allowed Rapinoe to win the ball from Scott at the edge of the Americans’ penalty area, and Lloyd quickly sprung Morgan on a break down the left wing. The speedy forward skipped around defender Carmelina Moscato before sending an enticing low ball across the six-yard box between Canada’s goalkeeper and her exposed defense.
Wambach arrived at the back post with an open net to aim at, but somehow she directed the ball wide of the gaping target from four yards away.
Canada also had a late chance on 89 minutes when Heath’s pass inside to Buehler fell short, allowing Schmidt to close down the hurried defender and break through on goal from a tight angle. Solo’s left boot prevented the 24-year-old’s low shot from creeping inside the near post.
Leroux fired over while stretching to reach O’Hara’s cross in the first period of extra-time, and Wambach’s header from Heath’s deep cross one minute later sailed straight to goalkeeper McLeod.
Morgan’s Athleticism And Sundhage’s Courage Seal U.S. Win
A pragmatic coach would have found a way to switch back to having four defenders after drawing level. Sundhage bravely persisted with 3-4-3 as her team exhausted the Canadians, working the ball across the full width of the field. The Swede changed her staff rather than her system, bringing Heather O’Reilly on at right-midfield for Cheney with Heath moving inside to partner Lloyd.
Herdman stuck with his 4-3-3 formation, yet the chances of Canada’s forwards finding themselves in a 3-vs-3 against the U.S. defense were dwindling as Schmidt and Sinclair dropped deeper to bolster their flagging midfield.
Morgan was proving to be the most dynamic player on the field the longer the game wore on. She sent another inviting ball across the face of McLeod’s goal on 117 minutes that none of her teammates could reach. Kyle made a vital challenge on Wambach one minute later after Morgan skipped to the byline again and cut the ball back across goal.
The Canadians were desperately hanging on. Morgan attacked them down the left wing again on 119 minutes before digging out a cross toward Wambach’s head. The Rochester, N.Y. native looped her effort tantalizingly close to McLeod’s outstretched fingers and against the relieved goalkeeper’s crossbar.
The clock ticked into the third and final minute of stoppage time as the Americans attacked again. Sesselmann and substitute Chelsea Stewart sent clearing headers high into the air near the edge of Canada’s penalty area. Scott, limping heavily after a bone-crunching collision with O’Reilly, misjudged her jump as she attempted to nod the ball further from goal and Rapinoe seized possession for the U.S. 30 yards out.
Rapinoe shifted the ball right to Wambach, who in turn found O’Reilly with space out wide. The substitute delivered a teasing ball toward the center of the six-yard box for Morgan and Wambach to contest with Canada’s overworked defenders. Morgan rose highest, climbing above Stewart to nod the ball high into McLeod’s net.
Canada’s men suffered a heart-breaking loss at the hands of their neighbors in the semi-final of the 2007 Gold Cup. Now it was the Canadian women’s turn to suffer an excruciating defeat.
Aug. 7, 2012 — Canadians Air Grievances Over Semi-Final Referee
Aug. 3, 2012 — Directness, Pace And Power Get U.S. Women To Final Four
Aug. 1, 2012 — USA Hangs On Against Koreans To Seal Third Group Win