Trailing three times on Sinclair goals, U.S. shocks Canada 4-3 with Morgan's late OT header.
By Robert Wagman
(Monday, August 6, 2012) -- In a stunning end to an epic battle, striker Alex Morgan headed home the decisive tally just under the crossbar in the third minute of overtime stoppage time, giving the United States its first lead and a 4-3 triumph over Canada in the Summer Olympics semifinals before 26,640 tonight at Old Trafford in Manchester, England.
Three times the U.S. battled back from one-goal deficits and earned a chance for redemption by advancing to Thursday's championship match with Japan, the team that defeated the Americans in a penalty-kicks tiebreaker in the 2011 Women's World Cup final. The 2:45 p.m. (ET) game at legendary Wembley Stadium in London, with the U.S. playing in its fifth straight Olympics final and seeking its fourth gold medal, will be televised by NBC Sports Network.
"A huge win, it showed a huge heart on our part and (Canada's) part as well, but we had the last one in," said standout U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe, who found net twice. "It's crazy. We always felt like we were in it. . . It never felt like we were going to lose. We never feel that way. I think it's kind of weird we never feel that way."
There have been few, if any, matches with the drama of today's meeting at Manchester United's home, nicknamed "The Theatre of Dreams."
"There really was never a moment of doubt, which people may find hard to believe, but it was the truth," U.S. striker Abby Wambach said. "I really did believe throughout that entire game that we would get the goals we needed to move on to the gold-medal round."
On paper, the U.S. appeared to have a considerable edge on its northern neighbor. The Americans went 3-0 to win Group G, while Canada needed a heroic comeback to escape group play. The Canadians finished 1-1-1 in third place in Group F only after erasing a two-goal deficit to draw Sweden 2-2. It's been 11 years since Canada defeated the U.S.; the Americans have a 23-0-4 record in the series since 2001.
"We feel as though Canada played a really fantastic game," Wambach said. "They perfected their game plan. Their coach had them prepared. Christine Sinclair couldn't have had a better game. I know I've been there before, scoring a hat trick and losing and it's gutting. There's no other word for it. I'm sure (Canada) is feeling sorry and sad, but they have to credit themselves because they made a really fantastic run in this tournament. . . Honestly, it's the best I've ever seen Canada play."
While Morgan put away the cross from extra-time reserve midfielder Heather O'Reilly for the game-winner, it was Rapinoe who was the shining star for the U.S., scoring the Americans' first two goals, but also chasing down ball after ball and feeding her teammates with penetrating passes.
While U.S. coach Pia Sundhage seemed to have superior talent at her disposal, Canada's English coach John Herdman appeared to have the superior game plan to create room to roam for his superstar forward Christine Sinclair. She responded with goals in the 22nd, 67th and 73rd minutes.
Time after time, Sinclair gained an advantage by running into open space and the U.S.'s loose marking cost them. Often, when an American seemed to have her marked, they released Sinclair, apparently assuming another defender would pick her up. When teammates were slow or unable to pick her up, Sinclair got clear chances. This was particularly an unwise strategy to defend a player who raised her career goal total to 142, 16 short of Mia Hamm's international career record.
While Sundhage might have come up short on a plan to contain Sinclair, she redeemed herself with a prescient substitution in the 101st minute, bringing O'Reilly into the right midfield. O'Reilly is known for her ability to go carry deep into the attacking third before sending accurate passes into the penalty area.
With tiebreaking penalty kicks seemingly inevitable, O'Reilly took a square ball from Wambach on the right flank. She touched forward once and crossed to Morgan, seven yards out. Morgan, not known for her heading, elevated and nodded her shot just under the crossbar and inches above goalkeeper Erin McLeod's outstretched fingertips in the 123rd minute.
"I was thinking that my teammates were busting their butts for 100 minutes-plus by the time I went in there," O'Reilly said. "I was just trying to bring high energy and my job as a flank midfielder is to get some balls in the box and give us a chance to get some headers and stuff. So, Abby played me a ball, I was able to turn my hips on it and just get it in the mix and it was Alex who got her head on it. I think it was just a great team win. Everybody battled and did their role, so it was really rewarding."
The final whistle came less than a minute later.
The U.S. might not have been in position for its dramatic victory if it were not for an odd call by Norwegian referee Christina Pedersen. Having earlier warned McLeod for time-wasting, she awarded the American an indirect kick from just inside the top of the box when McLeod again exceeded the allowable six seconds to move the ball after a save. This is a call seldom seen in high-level competition, no less the Olympics semifinals. McLeod possessed the ball for maybe 12 seconds.
Tobin Heath tapped the free kick to the right to fellow midfielder Carli Lloyd, who nailed a right-footer that hit Canadian defender Marie-Eve Nault's arm for a penalty kick. Wambach converted it low and inside the left post for a 3-3 tie in the 80th minute, in the process passing Sinclair with 143 career strikes, most for an active player.
The U.S. dominated the early going, but Canada got on the scoreboard first thanks to some lax defending, allowing Sinclair a free shot from deep in the box. The U.S. drew level at 1-1 in the 54th minute when Rapinoe's corner kick found its way into the goal through McLeod and two defenders.
"I wish I could claim I did that on purpose," Rapinoe said.
Sinclair scored her second goal in the 67th minute and again it was Rapinoe who answered three minutes later. Sinclair completed her hat trick in the 73rd minute, seven minutes before Wambach pulled the Americans even again from the penalty spot.
Besides Sinclair, any number of Canadian players excelled, led by defender Desiree Scott and forward Melissa Tancredi, the pair's aggressive play accounting for the match's two yellow cards. On the U.S. side, Morgan, Wambach, and defenders Christie Rampone and Rachel Buehler had huge games, while Rapinoe worked tirelessly.
The cliché is that it's too bad either team had to lose. In this one that's an absolute truth. This was simply a transcendent sporting event, one that will long be remembered, particularly by Americans should the U.S. prevail Thursday in capturing gold.
U.S. Player Ratings:
Goalkeeper Hope Solo - 5.5: Technically, she can't be faulted for any of Canada's goals, but the world's best-known woman keeper should have been able to prevent at least one. From not having much to do in the previous U.S. matches, she was very busy tonight and came up just short.
Defender Amy LePeilbet - 6: She was very sound on the outside and rarely beaten. She had her hands full with Tancredi, but responded well. Vacated the spot through which Sinclair drilled her third goal.
Defender Christie Rampone - 5.5: Lost Sinclair on her headed goals, but otherwise made stop after stop.
Defender Rachel Buehler - 6: In a physical battle, she more than held her own. Began to tire as the overtime went on and was ready to come out when she was replaced.
Defender Kelley O'Hara- 6: A quiet game. Did a lot of the dirty, defensive work.
Midfielder Megan Rapinoe - 8: Quite simply a heroic performance. Two goals, countless pinpoint passes, huge defensive stops and she ran tirelessly for all 124 minutes.
Midfielder Carli Lloyd - 6.5: Broke up thrust after thrust by Canada. Maybe all her passes were not perfect, but was at the heart of the U.S. midfield.
Midfielder Tobin Heath - 6.5: She played in the middle with much of the U.S. attack moving through her.
Midfielder Lauren Cheney - 6.5: Was very active and performed tirelessly, but started to fade as the overtime progressed.
Forward Alex Morgan - 7.5: Scored one of the great goals in U.S. women's history, but did much more, making a big effort on both ends.
Forward Abby Wambach- 6.5: Though it's not well-known she is playing hurt, she is bothered by chronic foot and leg problems. For the second straight match, she had an up-and-down performance. She made a great conversion of her late equalizing penalty kick, but failed to steer a later cross into a potential regulation game-winner, hitting the side net with her sliding shot.
Forward Sydney Leroux, (76th minute for LePeilbet) - 5.5: She could not replicate her previous performance against New Zealand, when she scored an insurance goal, but her fresh legs were a big help as the match wore on.
Midfielder Heather O'Reilly (101st minute for Cheney) - 6.5: She was steady at a time when the U.S. needed more out of its midfield and perfectly put her cross on Morgan's head for the game-winner.
Defender Becky Sauerbrunn (110th minute for Buehler) - 5.5: Came on and made three glaring errors, but then made a huge defensive play that snuffed out Canada's best overtime try.
SoccerTimes Player of the Match: Megan Rapinoe.
Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.
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