Canada Soccer’s Women’s National Team took on the United States in the semi-finals of the Olympic soccer tournament on Monday, with a spot in the final round on the line. Here’s what stood out to us from that game, one in which Canada snapped a 20 year winless run against their neighbours to make their first-ever major tournament final.
It was a victory 20 years in the making.
2 decades after they last beat their closest geographical rival, Canada Soccer’s Women’s National Team knew that they were going to be in tough against the US on Monday, when the 2 neighbours clashed in semi-final action at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
As Canada looked to reach the final of a major tournament for the first time in their history, they had a chance to not only erase those struggles, but do so against a team that has mostly only known winning in these sorts of major tournaments, having won 8 of them in the past.
But despite that mountain that lay ahead, Canada was confident in their chances heading into the game, though. Although the US is defending World Cup champions, and entered this tournament with a 44-game unbeaten run, they’d so far looked beatable in Tokyo, having lost their opening game to Sweden, before drawing Australia in the last game of the group stages.
They then pulled things back against the Netherlands, pulling off an impressive victory in penalties, but it was clear that this wasn’t the US that people are used to seeing, and that this Canadian side had every chance of being able to beat them.
After a mixed group stage performance themselves, as Canada finished 2nd in their group with 1 win and 2 draws, in which they showed uncharacteristic defensive sloppiness, they’d pulled things back in time for their quarter-final match, which came against Brazil, where they too also won on penalties after holding Brazil to a 0-0 across 120 minutes.
Because of that, both teams looked ready to play an entertaining semi-final, one where both teams had a chance of winning, allowing them to progress to the final. For Canada, that would’ve meant guaranteeing what head coach Bev Priestman had long promised to do heading into this tournament- changing the colour of the medal after back-to-back bronzes in the past 2 editions of this competition.
Plus, for Canada, it was a chance for revenge, as the last time these two teams met at this tournament, it was in the semi-finals of the 2012 tournament, held in Great Britain, where the US won 4-3 in the 120th minute of extra time, of which they forced off of the back of some questionable calls in regulation time that got that game coined as the ‘London Screwjob’ by Canadians.
So considering all of that, there was a lot on the line for Canada, which only made their eventual 1-0 win all the more sweeter, as they finally got to have a moment many had long dreamed of having, against their rivals to boot.
Now, they get to take on Sweden for a gold medal on Thursday, in a game that will be followed closely by millions across the country. After their long road to get this point, it’s a deserved opportunity, one that has been a long time coming, making it a landmark moment for this sport in the country.
But before then, Canada will have time to reflect on their big victory from Monday, one in which they finally took that step towards being a top contender globally.
Here’s some of what stood out from that one.
Fleming’s big moment:
While Canada did well to find a result in this game, that wasn’t always secure, though, as the game started out quite cagey, with both sides pushing hard to find that opening tally.
As a result, there were a few hairy moments to start the match, mostly off of turnovers and loose passes, as both sides slowly eased into the flow of the game.
Off the back of some stout defending, though, Canada kept the US at bay for most of the game, except for a few half-chances, while putting together some nice spells of possession of their own.
Looking more like the Canada that opposing teams had expected to see heading into this tournament, it felt like they were once again up for the task defensively, much like they were against Brazil, allowing them to hold on as they desperately chased any sort of breakthrough for an opening goal.
And then, from there, they had their moment of magic in the 71st minute, as Deanne Rose did nicely to slip in behind the US’s Tierna Davidson in the box, drawing a foul in the process. It wasn’t originally called by the referee, as it was hard to tell what happened, but upon a review at the VAR box, it was deemed to be a penalty, giving Canada a chance to open the scoring.
From there, captain Christine Sinclair boldly grabbed the ball, handed it off to 23-year-old Jessie Fleming, who stepped up, and ripped the ball right into the side netting, giving Canada their opening goal.
For Canada, it was a massive goal, as it would stand up as the winner, but the symbolism of the moment might be just what everyone remembers of it.
Everyone expected Sinclair, the all-time international goal scorer with 187 goals, to step up and take the spot-kick, but having missed a penalty in the shootout against Brazil, to see her pass the ball on to her younger teammate was both a moment of incredible humility from Sinclair, while also representing a passing of the torch.
But that’s Sinclair for you. Despite being one of the best of a generation, she’s always been selfless almost to a fault, and that was no different despite the grandeur of the occasion, giving reason #500 000 why Canada has been lucky to have been blessed with her presence.
As for Fleming, though, this was a moment that can change a career, as despite being the third-youngest player on the pitch at the time, she slammed home the penalty with the conviction of a 35-year-old veteran, showing great composure.
For those who’ve followed Fleming with Canada, it wasn’t all that surprising, as there’s a reason why she made her senior debut when she was just 15, and has already played at 2 World Cups and is at her 2nd Olympics despite her age.
At the same time, though, there have been players much more seasoned than her that have stepped up and missed penalties at all levels of this sport, so even despite that, it was still a welcome surprise to finish with such conviction.
And although there’s still the final to be played, this moment could prove to be huge for Fleming, who now finds herself at a good point in her career.
Coming off of her first professional season for Chelsea, where she won a league title and finished as runner-ups in the Champions League, there’s a belief by many who’ve watched her in England that she’s on the precipice of a breakthrough with more minutes.
That’s also reflected in her advanced statistics, which had her as one of the best midfielders in the English league despite her low playing time, as she always managed to make the most of her limited opportunity.
But as seen when she plays for Canada, she doesn’t shy away from responsibility, even with a heavy workload, having played all but 45 minutes for her country this tournament, where she’s seemed to get better each and every game.
Because of that, it feels like this goal wasn’t only a passing of the torch for her at the national team level, of which she’s certainly now cemented as one of the team’s most important players, but also in her club career, which one would imagine will only take off after this tournament.
So although Sinclair is still a big part of this team, and will continue to be until she chooses to hang up the boots, it’s clear that the national team is in safe hands now with the likes of Fleming, Janine Beckie, Ashley Lawrence and Kadeisha Buchanan leaving the way, among others, and that was proven on Monday.
Gilles and Buchanan continue success together:
And speaking of Buchanan, it’s worth highlighting that she and centre back Vanessa Gilles were huge for Canada once again in this game, as they started their 3rd straight game together, helping their team keep a 2nd consecutive clean sheet.
After hanging on for 120 minutes against Brazil, one could only wonder if they’d be similarly up for the task against the Americans, but that doubt quickly went out the window as the match progressed, as they were both up to the task once again.
For Buchanan, that isn’t so surprising, as there’s a reason why she’s won 4 Champions League and is a nailed-down starter for one of the best clubs in the world in Lyon, where she’s formed a nice partnership with Wendie Renard.
But for Gilles, this was another statement performance for the 25-year-old in a Canadian shirt, as she’s continued to arguably be Canada’s breakout player of the year.
Despite only having 1 cap heading into this year, she’s been a rock at the back for Canada in 7 games in 2021, putting up several memorable performances along the way.
Starting with a clash against the US at She Believes Cup in February, where she was the player of the game in a 1-0 loss to the Americans, through big wins against Wales and England, a draw against the Czech Republic and now at the Olympics, the Bordeaux defender has been as steady as they come for Priestman.
There’s a reason why in those 7 games that she’s started, Canada has just allowed 2 goals, as she’s been that good at the back for her country.
That was no different on Monday, as she put up a whopping 19 clearances, which was 6 more than the entire US team, and 4 fewer than the rest of her teammates had combined.
Along with some good looks at the other end off of corners, she’s proven to be a force in both boxes, one that teams have not had fun dealing with.
Because of that, it’s made the Canadian box a place teams are starting to dread having to go into, as Buchanan and Gilles tend to do their best to give opponents a warm welcome, one that usually consists of a bone-crunching tackle, a physical 50/50 or a thundering header.
With Buchanan’s calming presence in terms of playing out of the box and organizing her defence, along with Gilles’s relentless nature, it’s made them a good pair, one that has played a big role in Canada’s results.
Plus, with both defenders still only 25 years of age, this is just the start of what’s to come for these 2, as they still arguably have a decade of top-level football ahead of them, at least based on how centre backs tend to do as they get older, which is a tantalizing possibility.
Considering that they’ve done this in limited minutes together, it’s going to be interesting to see how they grow together, helping make Canada’s defence one of the best in the world.
Before then, though, they’ll look to continue their strong performance into the final against Sweden, where they’ll arguably face their stiffest test of the tournament against a potent Swedish attack, but when looking long-term, the possibilities seem to be endless with the two.
Elsewhere, Canada continued to roll with the 4-3-1-2 they’ve made their own all tournament long, which was not that surprising considering that they’re yet to lose these Olympics.
Yes, wins have been hard to come by, but with how strong they’ve been defensively, they had no reason to stray from the formula heading into these big games, where as long as you remain tied, you have a chance to win the game.
That was the case on Monday, as they hardly gave the US a sniff defensively for most of the game, as they expertly closed down space between their defensive lines of 4 and 3.
Other than a 10 minute period after a triple substitution saw the US bring on Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe and Christen Press, the Americans were left frustrated at their attempts to break through the Canadian defence all game long.
Thanks to the solidness of the back 4, along with a midfield three that knows how to both compress in the middle and stretch out into wide areas depending on how their opponents attack, plus a front 3 that presses strategically, it’s proven to be a winning formula defensively.
Offensively, there’s still a bit of work to do, especially in possession, but Canada has done a good job of holding onto the ball up into the final third. Once they’ve been there, they’ve had their fair share of struggles, but that they’re holding the ball is good, as they’ve avoided giving up any cheap chances to opponents these past few games.
But one positive sign worth noting is that Canada has had flashes in each game where they’ve managed to stretch out opposing backlines with the pace of someone such as Nichelle Prince, who has 2 assists this tournament, or Deanne Rose, who won the penalty in this game, so that’s something to consider against a stout Sweden side that has been pretty solid defensively themselves.
It’s hard to imagine Canada starting both Prince and Rose in the final, as that would mean either benching Sinclair, who’s been instrumental in helping her team keep the ball in deeper areas as a #10, or someone like Janine Beckie, who’s offensive service is among the best on the team.
They could also sacrifice one of their midfield trio, but that’s unimaginable at this point, as Fleming, Quinn and Desiree Scott have been so key to the team’s defensive efforts, so it looks like Canada will probably stick to the same set-up against Sweden, barring any injury concerns.
And that’s not a bad thing, as Canada has looked quite solid in this formation, especially defensively, but it’ll be interesting to see if they offer up any sort of changes to mix things up in attack, or stick with the current formula, as there’s no bad choice for Priestman there, at least based on how things have gone so far.
What to expect from Sweden:
Lastly, though, it’s worth noting that Canada will probably get their stiffest test of this tournament in the final, as this Sweden team has quickly emerged as favourites thanks to their play to date.
Having cruised through the group stages with a cool 3 wins, the only team in this 12-team tournament to do so, they’ve so far dispatched hosts Japan with ease 3-1 in the quarter-finals, before comfortably getting by Australia 1-0 in the semi-finals to reach the final.
Plus, having made the final of the last Olympic tournament, where they only narrowly lost to eventual champions Germany 2-1, revenge is on their minds this tournament, as they look to avenge that defeat.
And they have history with Canada, too, as they famously knocked this Canadian side out of the 2019 World Cup with a 1-0 win in the Round of 16, as they ended up finishing 3rd in that tournament, so revenge will be on the mind of both sides.
With talented players such as Real Madrid’s Sofia Jakobsson and Kosovare Allsani, BK Hacken’s Stina Blackstenius and Chelsea’s Magdalena Eriksson, among others, they’ve got a balanced squad, one of the deepest of this tournament.
They tend to send numbers forward in attack, having scored 13 goals in 5 games, but are also responsible defensively, too having only conceded 3 goals this tournament, making it hard for opponents to find the right balance tactically against them.
So for Canada, this will prove to be an exciting matchup, as they’ll have their work cut out for them at both ends of the pitch, especially on the defensive end.
Based on what we saw in the US game, it shouldn’t be an insurmountable task, but it promises to be a very tough one, one that Canada will have to be on their A-game for.
It’s a very winnable game for both sides, though, so Canada can make something happen, but they’ll need to be at their very best in order to do so.
So now, Canada must immediately turn their focus to preparing for this Sweden game, not lingering too much on the grandeur of this US result.
Make no mistake, this is one of the biggest wins of Canadian soccer history, and will be a game talked about for decades to come, but Canada now has a chance to pick up a gold medal that can alter the course of this sport in this country, so they’ll want to head into that clash with Sweden as prepared as can be.
Having already done what they set out to do, which is to change the colour of the medal, they’ll be quite happy with their performance to date, and rightfully so, but they’ve got one step left in their journey, and they’ll want to give their best in that game.
But with history already in their back pocket, they can head into that game with a little less pressure, which might even help them find the level required to beat this Swedish team.
Based on what we’ve seen from Canada this tournament, you’d be hard-pressed to count them out of anything at this point, and that will most definitely be the case again on Thursday.
Up Next: Canada vs Sweden, Thursday, August 5th, 2021, 19:00 PDT, 22:00 EDT (National Stadium, Tokyo)
Cover Photo via: Daniela Porcelli/Canada Soccer