There was a moment in this match where I felt “what if Canada flip the script?” then I shook my head as the second half wore on. The USWNT were pushing Canada back, without ever really punishing them, but they were being penned back. I felt that sooner or later, the same story would repeat itself and the USWNT would get the goal that would crush Canadian hearts again.
Nine years ago, Alex Morgan found that goal. This time around Jessie Fleming composed herself and slotted in a perfect penalty to crush US hearts instead.
The first sign of things to come happened in the first half. A first half were Canada defended intelligently and doggedly while also trying to create going forward. A first half that also saw the USWNT’s midfield become non-existent as time ticked on. A snap shot of the first half would show you a US defender with the ball, with four players around her in a semi-circle while the nearest option forward was a good 20 yards ahead, trying to play on the toes of Canada’s backline. It meant that the US forwards didn’t get much service and also allowed the Canadian midfield to recover quickly and solidify their shape whenever they didn’t have the ball. That also led to them being able to win the ball easily and launch quick counter attacks.
Although those counters didn’t lead to goals, they did lead to the biggest talking point of the first half, A looping ball around the 20th minute was caught and dropped by Alyssa Naeher, with Becky Sauerbrunn being the first to reach the ball and clear it. That drop however, resulted in an injury that Naeher could not shake off, and left her being substituted out of the game for Adrianna Franch in the 30th minute. Franch, who up until then, had not played in the Olympics at all, wasn’t tested by Canada but it definitely shifted the tone of the match.
After half time, the USWNT started to push forward and their substitutes, Megan Rapinoe, Christen Press and Carli Lloyd helped shift momentum back into the USWNT’s hands. However, it was a Canadian substitute that ended up making the difference. Deanna Rose, who had come in for Nichelle Prince in the 60th minute, looked to trouble the US backline with her pace and persistence. That tactic worked out brilliantly for Beverly Priestman as in the 73rd minute, VAR judged that Tierna Davidson (who had been brilliant up until then) had fouled Rose as she was being pressured by the Canadian. The foul led to a penalty that Jessie Fleming then coolly stepped up and converted, giving Canada a lead to hold on to.
They did exactly just that, putting in tackles, headers and bodies on the line to stop the USWNT from getting an equalizer. Carli Lloyd came closest to that in the 86th minute when her header crashed off the crossbar but that was the best chance the USWNT had to find their way back in the game. When the final whistle blew, the hurt of nine years ago and 20 years of waiting for a win against the USWNT was released into the Kashima air by the Canadians. A Gold medal match awaits them while the USWNT will play for Bronze on Thursday, something they and Vlatko Andonovski would not have planned for or wanted.