To say that the USWNT has a “rivalry” with the Canadian national team is probably overstating it a bit, in the same way that Ohio State football doesn’t have a rivalry with, like, Minnesota. Though there’s proximity and familiarity, and some close games, and even one instance of the Canadians outperforming the Americans at a major international tournament (the last Olympics), the fact remains that the U.S. simply does not lose when these two teams go against each other. Canada has not beaten the U.S. women since group play at the 2001 Algarve Cup, and the USWNT overall has racked up a 51-3-7 all-time record against their most common opponent.
But despite the lopsided history, there’s one game in particular that defines this entire fixture. It’s the one that, for almost a decade now, has fueled the tension and the hope and the drama every time the U.S. and Canada reunite on the pitch. And ever since another match-up between the two was set for the Olympic semifinals on Monday morning, the 2012 duel between these North American powers in the same round of the same tournament has been on everybody’s mind. It still holds up as the greatest Olympic soccer game ever, and as Canadian veterans like Christine Sinclair and Desiree Scott take the field in Tokyo, they wouldn’t be human if they weren’t at least a little bit motivated by the prospect of revenge.
The USWNT started their bid for back-to-back-to-back gold medals in 2012 in characteristic fashion, as they took all nine points from the group stage, dispatched New Zealand in the quarters, and carried a 346-minute shutout streak into the semis against Canada. That veneer of invincibility cracked in the early going, however, as the all-time international goal-scoring leader Christine Sinclair kicked off the scoring in the 22nd minute with a perfect finish after some deft passing sliced open the U.S. defense. It would be 1-0 at halftime because of that goal, but so much more was about to happen.
The opening 30 minutes of the second half was a battle between two legends in their respective nations—Sinclair and Megan Rapinoe. In minute 54, the American midfield magician sent a corner directly across the line at the near post. And then things got truly wild. Sinclair scored a header off a great cross in the 67th. Rapinoe followed up with an absolutely vicious strike off the post and in just three minutes later. And then Sinclair responded again in the 73rd, completing the hat trick with another brilliant header that drifted over Amy LePeilbet at the post. 3-2, Canada.
That’s about when the controversy began. In the 77th minute, Canadian goalie Erin McLeod got whistled for the rarely called six-second rule as she held the ball for too long after a save, which led to an indirect free kick, which led to a heavily disputed handball call on Canada, which in turn led to an Abby Wambach penalty kick equalizer. Depending on which side of the border you were on, the saga was either an infuriating case of an official inserting themselves into a game without good reason, or an absolute lifesaver that could easily be interpreted as technically correct.
“We feel like we didn’t lose, we feel like it was taken from us,” a very frustrated Sinclair said afterwards. “It’s a shame in a game like that that was so important, the ref decided the result before it started.”
Of course, it took one more goal to officially shunt Team Canada into the bronze-medal match, and that came courtesy of Alex Morgan at the very, very end of extra time. Heather O’Reilly sent in the cross from the flank, Morgan got her head on it, and the ball traveled through that game-winning zone above McLeod’s outstretched hands and yet still below the crossbar. The final whistle blew before Canada could mount any kind of response. The U.S. would go on to beat Japan in the final, while Canada would have to settle for the first of its back-to-back third-place finishes.
The 2021 version of the USWNT still has plenty of key names with memories of that instant classic: Becky Sauerbrunn, Kelley O’Hara, Carli Lloyd, Tobin Heath, Rapinoe, and Morgan could all make an appearance on Monday, nine years after that unforgettable win. For Canada, the list is shorter. McLeod’s now a third-stringer, and Sophie Schmidt is a bit player. But Scott and Sinclair—who scored six minutes into these Olympics in a 1-1 draw with Japan—should both be out there, with plenty of confidence that they can do what they could not in London, against a USWNT that’s looked plenty vulnerable so far at these Olympics.
“I think all of us remember that 2012 match. What an incredible semifinal. For this, our team is completely different now I would say. I think we’ve developed as a program, as the people who are on the field, the sort of brand of soccer that we play, has really evolved,” Scott said.
“Now we’re an attacking threat. We’re not just that defensive Canadian grit team that you would expect in 2012 where we would hope for transition, or we would be hopeful relying our defensive game. We now have attack and defense going both ways and we’re, we’re just a more confident group.”AP
For Canada, no matter how they do in the final, a victory over the USWNT would guarantee them their best finish ever at either a World Cup or an Olympics. (That’s on top of it just being a long-awaited win against a rival.) For the U.S., expectations are as usual high enough that anything less than gold will be a disappointment, particularly if those hopes get dashed by a team that never beats them. More specifically, becoming the first nation to follow up a Women’s World Cup win with an Olympic gold would be yet another extraordinary accomplishment for this highly decorated squad, and winning this match is obviously a necessity if that’s to happen.
It’s impossible to imagine Monday’s game being quite as exciting as 2012’s—almost no soccer games have ever hit that bar. But despite all the roster turnover and all the time that’s passed, it’s also impossible not to see these two games as being linked, no matter what happens out there in 2021. A Canadian loss will be even more devastating because of the old feelings it will bring out, and how close they came before, while a USWNT loss would practically be an exorcism, and an achievement for Canada made all the more sweet because of how long they’ve had to wait and how wronged they felt nine years ago. It’s honestly kind of fitting, then, that this game is going to be played at 4 am in the Eastern Time Zone. In my experience that’s right around the best time to see ghosts.