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The United States' 4-3 victory in overtime against Canada on Monday was an instant classic. We reflect on the semifinal and predict what might be coming in the gold-medal match against Japan on Thursday.
Ramona Shelburne: It would be easy to say 2012 since the past 250 or so posts on my Twitter and Facebook feeds are filled with friends and colleagues in all stages of delirium and joy right now. But for my money, that 2011 game against Brazil was better. I think it has lost a little luster with time because the U.S. didn't end up winning the World Cup. But that game in July 2011 was among the most dramatic matches I've ever seen.
The United States played a player short from the 66th minute on in a 122-minute game. And remember the controversial call on goalkeeper Hope Solo after she thwarted Marta's penalty kick in the 65th minute? Remember Abby Wambach's brilliant header to tie the match, not just win it, in the 122nd minute? Or maybe it was just the sight of coach Pia Sundhage on the air guitar, jamming to AC/DC after the win.
Both matches were absolutely thrilling. But in a lot of ways, the 2011 win over Brazil put the United States women's soccer team back on the map to the widest audience it has known since the great 1999 Women's World Cup-winning team. Then again, ask me this question after the gold-medal game Thursday.
Melanie Jackson: It's easy to get caught up in the moment, but Monday's semifinal game was better than the 2011 World Cup quarterfinal match between U.S. women's soccer and Brazil. I don't fall into the category of those who complain about soccer being boring because of its lack of goals, but four strikes in a 13-minute span in the second half was sports at its best. And at Old Trafford to boot. To be able to come back and answer your opponent like that demonstrates amazing composure by both sides. Neither ever got rattled or looked panicked.
Yes, Brazil plays brilliant one-on-one soccer, and I missed seeing Marta and Cristiane play in the semifinals and "dance" with the ball. But both USA soccer and Canada played terrific games as a team Monday. There was a lot of possession between the 18-yard lines. How many of the U.S. attacks started with a simple pass from the back line? How many times did Megan Rapinoe soar up the flanks? How many times did Alex Morgan juke a defender to get a cross off to her teammates crashing the posts?
And yes, while Christine Sinclair dominated the day with only the second hat trick in history against the U.S. women's soccer team, wasn't that Canada's main attacking purpose from the kickoff? But she didn't dribble through 11 players; Canada put Sinclair in excellent positions to score -- and she delivered. I just loved seeing both teams stick to their tactical game plans right down to the last minute. That's a lot of discipline and a big credit to both coaches.
Bottom line, though: Any game that puts women's soccer in the mainstream consciousness is a win. I'm just glad to see it happen again. And I still think the 1999 Women's World Cup final is the best women's soccer game ever played -- even though it also went to penalty kicks. (Note to FIFA: I don't know what the answer is, but I'd rather see 22 players run until they pass out than have a game decided in a shootout.)
Graham Hays: It's difficult to answer this without going back and watching the World Cup quarterfinal again, but the bias of freshness notwithstanding, I'll take this game against Canada. Starting with the backdrop of Old Trafford, one of soccer's holy sites, this game had everything a classic demands, from a dramatic, jump-out-of-your-seat finish courtesy of Alex Morgan's header in the final minute of the second period of extra time to 120 minutes of well-played, positive, intense soccer to get there. The game last year had Marta, who is worth some number of bonus style points all by herself, but no player in the world could produce a better individual performance than the one Canada's Christine Sinclair offered Monday. Throw in the subplot of Canada turning the tables on a soccer rivalry that wasn't so much a rivalry as a big sibling, the United States, continually beating up on a younger sibling, Canada, and there's almost no way to find fault with the Olympic masterpiece. I remember a great finish in the game between Brazil and the United States. I think I'll remember this entire game.
Mechelle Voepel: I'm torn, because to me a great, nail-biting match that ends without penalty kicks usually trumps one that does conclude with PKs. However, the sheer improbability of Abby Wambach's game-tying goal at practically the last second of extra time in 2011 against Brazil puts that match over the top for me. It showed the United States' persistence despite time slipping away in a crucial, knockout contest, when it would have been understandable for even a really disciplined team to dissolve into disorganized panic.
Shelburne: The grit and determination of both sides. By the end of the game, it looked like every player on the field was about to collapse. Players were injured and exhausted, the coaches were frantic, fans all over the world were spent. From the physical dominance of Abby Wambach and Melissa Tancredi to the skill and creativity of Megan Rapinoe and Christine Sinclair, it was absolutely riveting soccer of which both sides should be proud.
Alex Morgan's goal was a fitting end to a game the Americans deserved to win but still felt fortunate to do so. It would have been a shame to see this go to penalty kicks. If the Americans go on to avenge their loss to Japan in the gold-medal game, Morgan's goal will become their golden moment. But this game was so much bigger and better than that last play. As Morgan herself said after the game, "I'm still in shock. I don't care who frickin' scores as long as we score."
Jackson: With the exception of Rapinoe's first goal -- which had to be intended as a cross but just skipped past two Canadian defenders and into the near post -- all the goals were quality. And even though it's a shot from 12 yards and a situation in which a player should have the advantage, Abby Wambach's penalty kick in the 80th minute was well struck and dripping with drama. And then there's Sinclair. I can honestly say I haven't seen a player take over a game like that in a long time. It evoked images of Michelle Akers and Mia Hamm in their primes. I felt like I was holding my breath the entire game, not just because of the edge-of-your-seat drama, but because of how fun it is to see teams string passes together to find the back of the net.
Hays: The above affection for this game notwithstanding, I'm sad to say it's questionable officiating. At the risk of being a killjoy in a game filled with memorable moments, the extremely fortunate turn of events that allowed the United States to draw level for the third and final time will linger in my mind. Referee Christina Pedersen made herself a central figure in the game by first awarding an indirect free kick as a result of Canadian keeper Erin McLeod's time wasting and then a penalty kick for a hand ball on the resulting free kick. By the letter of law, there's a case to be made for both decisions, but few games in any sport are ever called by the letter of the law. Time wasting by keepers is nothing new and is a frequent source of yellow cards, but I can't remember the last time I saw an indirect free kick awarded in the waning minutes of a major game. To be honest, I can't remember the last time I saw it called at any point in any game. The spot kick was more of a flip of the coin, but it had to feel like a punch to the gut for Canada on the heels of the call that set everything in motion.
I will remember Sinclair taking over the game the way only a few individuals can in soccer. I will remember Megan Rapinoe's continued emergence as one of the most important and enjoyable players in the world. I will remember Diana Matheson's stamina and Morgan's joy. But I'll also remember Pedersen, and that's never a good thing to say about a referee in a game like this.
Voepel: Megan Rapinoe's two answering goals in what was otherwise largely the spectacular Christine Sinclair show.
Shelburne: The U.S. created and converted more chances. That's it. I don't subscribe to the theory that one side wanted it more than the other. Canada played its heart out Monday. It was one of the best matches that country has ever played. And wow, did Christine Sinclair have a game for the ages or what?
I know there will be a lot of Canadian fans who will focus on the controversial penalty kick that gave Wambach the chance to tie it in the 80th minute. But every game as close as this one has its share of controversy. Just look at the American's win over Brazil in the 2011 World Cup quarterfinal when Solo thwarted Marta's PK, only to be called -- incorrectly-- for coming off her line too early. Marta didn't miss a second time, and Brazil was on its way to a win until Wambach's heroics at the end. You win games like this in the way you respond to adversity. On this day, the U.S. response was better.
Jackson: Abby Wambach has said the loss to Japan in last year's Women's World Cup will make or break the U.S. women. But they have responded with tremendous fight and a confidence that is reminiscent of U.S. women's squads of the 1990s. They won't back down. They won't quit. And when they step on the field, they do it to win. That is what led the Americans past France in the Olympic opener, which started with France taking a 2-0 lead but ended in a 4-2 U.S. win. And it's what won out Monday. The U.S. women were also more fit. Canada looked tired toward the end.
Hays: The semifinal was a fair fight for 90 minutes, but extra time proved again that there is no team in the world better equipped to play 120-plus minutes of soccer than the United States. The Americans had the depth and conditioning to continue forcing the issue not just in the dramatic closing seconds that produced Morgan's header, but throughout the vast majority of two extra periods (thanks in no small part to Morgan's relentless running). Canada couldn't make the United States pay for taking the risk of playing essentially 45 minutes with three forwards and just three defenders, because it couldn't control possession and produce the kind of interplay between Sinclair and Melissa Tancredi that was so dynamic during the game's first 75 minutes. Simply put, the United States won because it was the better team over 120 minutes and was rewarded with the goal.
Voepel: Overall, the U.S. midfielders, led by Megan Rapinoe and sub Heather O'Reilly, were the backbone of the American effort, coming through both offensively and defensively.
Shelburne: Another classic. But if the Americans don't tighten up their defense, it might end the same way as the 2011 World Cup. Japan is so skilled, so smart and savvy, it will exploit the kind of mistakes the United States has made throughout the tournament. Here's guessing the Americans respond, though. This is the game and the opponent they've wanted for more than a year. This is the loss they've been dying to avenge. This game obviously took a lot out of them, but with two days to rest and everything to play for, I think the U.S. gets it done this time around.
Jackson: Not sure I know what to expect, but I know what to be wary of. Can the U.S. women ride the momentum and emotional high? Will they try too hard to exact revenge on the team that topped them in last year's World Cup? Will their legs hold up against Japan, which took an early lead against France on Monday and never was in doubt of advancing? Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan are working together as well as we've ever seen them, and that must continue for the Americans to win gold. The key might be the U.S. midfield and its continued domination of the flanks, and getting some crosses inside, where the U.S. should dominate the air (I'm still surprised it was Morgan's head -- not Wambach's -- that won the game Monday). And while I know U.S. fans are riding high, you can't overlook the six goals the U.S. defense has given up. It's time for that back line to tighten up.
Hays: The effort expended by the United States to get to the gold-medal match favors Japan, even if the reigning World Cup champion didn't have an easy time of things staving off a comeback from France in its own semifinal. But two days of rest should at least make fatigue a peripheral concern rather than a decisive one. In its semifinal win, Japan did an excellent job neutralizing the speed of France's Elodie Thomis, the right-side force who tormented so many teams in this tournament and opened things up for France's deep reserves of attacking talent. But the Japanese might struggle to contain both Morgan and Tobin Heath, two players who came on as substitutes in last year's World Cup final but now are more interwoven in the American system. Japan remains dangerous in its ability to control possession and break teams down, but the American team it faces doesn't just want redemption for the World Cup; it's better equipped to do something about it athletically.
Voepel: Japan will try to exploit gaps in the U.S. defense with its quickness, something the Japanese are very capable of doing. But the Americans have a good history of success in so-called "revenge" matches. Team USA 3, Japan 2.