USA vs. Canada: 'It's going to be hostile territory'
TORONTO -- One unusual call altered a match, and that unusual match changed everything about the previously understated and historically lopsided rivalry between the women's soccer teams of the United States and Canada.
As the two teams prepare to play Sunday for the first time since their memorable Olympic semifinal this past August, players on both sides have quipped that there won't be any neighborly quality to this allegedly friendly match. U.S. striker Abby Wambach relishes the thought.
"It'll have a World Cup kind of feel, it'll have that energy. The stadium is going to be buzzing, their fans are going to be behind them -- it's going to be hostile territory, and we understand that going in,'' Wambach said of the sold-out match at BMO Field in Toronto, which falls almost two years before the next Women's World Cup will kick off in Canada in June 2015.
"I'm fine being a villain. I think it's great for the sport," Wambach added. "If I were Canadian, I would probably dislike me, as well."
It was Wambach who counted aloud several times within earshot of Norwegian referee Christina Pedersen when Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod held the ball beyond the six seconds that rules dictate, eventually prodding Pedersen to whistle a seldom-invoked delay-of-game penalty. That led to a U.S. indirect kick, a Canadian hand ball and a penalty kick that Wambach banked off the left post into the net to tie the breathless match at 3-all late in regulation, marking the third time the Americans had come from behind. Alex Morgan scored the winner for the U.S. in the final seconds of injury time added to extra time. The Americans went on to win the gold medal and Canada the bronze.
Coming the year after an improbable comeback in the World Cup quarterfinal against Brazil, the Canada match reinforced the U.S. team's drive and cool to scramble out of any crisis.
"A lot of teams in that situation would start to put their heads down, would start to doubt themselves, maybe panic, even start playing reckless balls," said forward Christen Press, who watched the match from the stands with the three other players who were Olympic alternates. "This team's just an engine. You can see the body language of a team that's starting to push themselves, starting to communicate negatively with each other, and it was never like that at all."
U.S. coach Tom Sermanni, who was still guiding the Australian women's team at the time, processed the events as an outsider. He has no doubt the Canadians will carry more passion into this match because of their Olympic disappointment. He wants his team to ignore that and stay on point.
"From a Canadian perspective, I would use that game to say, 'We feel there's a chance now for this pecking order to change,'" he said. "Not just the injustice they felt last year, but the way they played, they'll feel a sense of, perhaps, we can now compete on equal terms.
"I think it's going to be a very stern test of both soccer quality and of our character. It's about dealing with the emotion of this game without being emotional."
His Canadian counterpart, John Herdman, called the encounter "a Derby match," pronouncing it "dar-bee" as is customary in his native England and using soccer terminology normally reserved for crosstown blood feuds such as the one between Manchester City and Manchester United.
"This is our pinnacle event," Herdman said. "We've prepared like [it's] a pinnacle event."
He is also implementing changes with an eye on the long term, continuing to graft more technical elements onto the team's physical style and bringing in a sports psychologist who has worked with NHL and NBA teams.
"If you're going to do anything against the States, everyone has to get right above their thresholds like they did at the Olympics," he said. "What we've looked at is, if you always do what you've always done, you always get what you always got. Our record against the States is terrible."
A good performance also could help the Canadian women confirm they are capable of bridging the continental divide in the sport. But the coach stressed that his players are still learning to deal with the reality of their new stature.
"I think, post-Olympics, it went from 'Canada might' to 'Canada can,'" Herdman said. "What the Americans bring is 'USA will.' We've got to try to move that, and you need a special group of players. I think we have that."
Attitudes might have changed, but statistics haven't. The U.S. team has a 44-3-5 all-time record against Canada, which last prevailed 12 years ago. In eight matches over three years leading up to the 2012 Olympics, the U.S. outscored Canada 18-3, including two 4-0 routs in Toronto and Vancouver.
But fearless Canadian forward Christine Sinclair reversed those energy poles all by herself in the Olympic semifinal at Old Trafford in Manchester by scoring a hat trick, a feat no player had accomplished against the U.S. since Norway's Ragnhild Gulbrandsen in 2001. Angry and frustrated after the match, Sinclair ripped the officials and was subsequently slapped with a four-game suspension and fined by FIFA, soccer's governing body.
She was restrained in her comments after the team held an open practice at BMO Field on Thursday. Matches against the U.S. are "always emotional -- before, during and after," Sinclair said. "But we're here to do a job, building toward the World Cup in 2015."
Defender Carmelina Moscato agreed. "It's been marketed as revenge, a rematch, and I understand that," she said. "But it's as much about performing well and nailing down our tactical goals as anything else."
Squadrons of squealing girls' teams lined up to get autographs from the Canadian players at their training session, a sight that has become much more familiar to them since last year's Olympics. Diana Matheson, the diminutive midfielder whose goal clinched the bronze medal, called the run to London "a life-changer" that has brought more commercial opportunities and attention, and solidified the federation's support of the new professional league in which she and many others play.
Many Canadian and U.S. players went into training camp having already logged two months in the inaugural season of the National Women's Soccer League. Both coaches said the women are more match-fit, but some are also more beat-up. Each side has called in a few younger, untested players. Notably absent for the U.S. team are goalkeeper Hope Solo, who is on the verge of completing rehab after wrist surgery and trained with the team for several days, and midfielder Megan Rapinoe, who has a couple of key championship matches coming up with her French club.
U.S. captain Christie Rampone, who earned her first cap against Canada 16 years ago, said it's good to have a challenging opponent at a time when Sermanni is still in learning mode about players' abilities and chemistry.
"I think we've looked past our last game against them and moved on into a new phase with a new coach, trying to see where he's going to bring us," she said. Her wish list for the match: "Raise our level, play better soccer against them and not have a disruptive game against them emotionally."
Wambach, who will be playing on her 33rd birthday, is three goals short of tying Mia Hamm for the U.S. scoring record. She views the ramped-up rivalry as nothing but a plus but said her team needs to be businesslike in its approach.
"Of course we're all competitors and we want to play hard, but we know if we buy into the emotional component of the game, that's what evens the stakes," she said. "After the Olympics, they went on all the talk shows, and we're not idiots; we see all this stuff and we get it. If it happened to go the other way, we would have been equally as disappointed, so this has more meaning for them. For us, this is about competing and making sure that the players that get time on the field do the best for our country.
"Gone are the days when we blow Canada out of the water," Wambach said. "It shows the game is growing in the positive direction we hoped it would."