Greatest game, part II? Stage set for USA-Canada

TOKYO — Abby Wambach was desperate. A Christine Sinclair goal — her third of the game — had put Canada up 3-2 in the 2012 Olympic women’s soccer semifinal. Now the seconds, and the United States’ gold medal hopes, were melting away.

And so Wambach did what he was always so brilliant at doing. She found a way to change the game … by counting.

The referee’s decision that Wambach would inspire/force/bully would go on to infuriate the Canadians, give life to the Americans and set the stage for Alex Morgan’s epic winner in the 123rd exhausted, exhilarated minute to send the U.S. to the Olympic final, 4-3. They’d capture gold a few days later over Japan.

It’s been hailed as the greatest women’s soccer game of all time. Comebacks. Heroics. Gamesmanship. Bitterness. Legacy.

Nine years and two Olympics later, the two rivals, with plenty of familiar faces, meet again in the semifinals.

“Are you guys hoping it’s like that again?” Morgan asked.

Yeah, pretty much.

Morgan’s goal — where she summoned the energy to win a Heather O’Reilly cross in the air and slip the ball just under the crossbar — is what is most remembered in the United States. In Canada, it’s what happened late in regulation, when Wambach managed to steal the game via clever referee manipulation.

“We felt like we didn’t lose,” Sinclair said that night. “We feel it was taken from us … the ref decided the result before the game started.”

Abby Wambach's game-tying penalty kick against Canada late in the second half of the 2012 Olympic semifinals can be attributed in part to some mastery of the
Abby Wambach’s game-tying penalty kick against Canada late in the second half of the 2012 Olympic semifinals can be attributed in part to some mastery of the “dark arts.” (PAUL ELLIS/AFP/GettyImages)

Wambach was America’s all-time great goal-scorer and one of the most competitive athletes ever. Part of her game was to constantly seek any advantage in any way possible. Might be the intimidation of an opponent. Might be the working of a ref.

“She’s well aware of the ‘dark arts,’” Riahn Wilkinson told the Globe and Mail in a 2015 retrospective of the game. “She uses them when she needs to.” Wilkinson’s comment wasn’t meant as a compliment. To Wambach, it might be.

Either way, early in the contest Wambach noticed that Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod was trying to slow the game down by holding the ball for a long time before punting it away.

For example, in the 27th minute, with the Canadians leading 1-0, McLeod held a ball for 16 seconds. The rule is no more than six seconds, although it is rarely, if ever, enforced, especially in a major international tournament.

Wambach didn’t care. She later told Yahoo Sports that she began running toward Norwegian referee Christina Pedersen and counting as McLeod had the ball. In the 60th minute, McLeod held it for 17 seconds. In the 68th, about 15 — 10 or 11 of them while she was on her feet.

Wambach said she would get into the teens, but Pedersen would ignore her. No whistles were blown.

At halftime, though, an assistant referee had warned McLeod to be quicker on her kicks, but the goalkeeper told the Globe and Mail she assumed it concerned goal kicks.

When the U.S. again trailed, 3-2, in the 78th minute, now with time drawing short, McLeod hauled in a Megan Rapinoe corner kick. Wambach again approached Pedersen and started counting.

McLeod got possession of the ball at 76:36. She got up from the ground at 76:40. Wambach said when she got her count to 10, Pederson blew the whistle.

The clock read 76:49, just as McLeod was kicking it away. Too late. Pedersen had called a delay and awarded the U.S. an indirect kick in the box.

There was confusion and pandemonium at Old Trafford in Manchester — England’s ancient and storied “Theatre of Dreams” — where the game was played. The Canadians were confused. So were many Americans. No one on either team could recall such a decision.

“The referee said I had the ball for 10 seconds,” McLeod said after. “She, obviously, counted the time when I was on the ground with the ball. Once I got to my feet, I calculated I only had the ball for five seconds.”

It was at least nine, but you can understand McLeod’s immediate reaction.

“Very harsh,” McLeod said.

Sinclair and teammate Jonelle Filigno aggressively sought an explanation but got little they could accept. “[Pedersen] actually giggled and said nothing,” Sinclair claimed. “Classy.” Others couldn’t believe Wambach’s incessant counting had worked.

“I was by her when she was counting on that play,” Lauren Sesselmann told the Globe and Mail. “I wanted to punch her.”

But she didn’t. No one did. Canadian coach John Herdman later said his team’s failure was not matching Wambach’s antics by either getting in her face, distracting the referee or, well, whatever it took. Of course, Wambach, at 5-foot-11, was an intimidating presence.

Regardless, Rapinoe, who scored two brilliant goals that night, including curling in a corner kick (an Olympic Olympico), took the indirect kick. Her shot hit the arm of Canadian defender Mary-Eve Nault.

The U.S. now had a penalty kick. Wambach would take it and, of course, make no mistake, banking a shot in off the left post. Just like that, it was 3-3.

Over the ensuing 40 minutes of regulation and extra time, there was a relentless back and forth, chances for both sides that just missed, crossbars and posts hit, incredible saves and inspired defensive stops, not to mention pushing, shoving, clawing and even more pushing.

The game was a frenzy with Old Tafford (full of mostly neutral English fans) hitting states of delirium. At the 2019 World Cup, members of English women’s national team credited the game — its intensity, quality and dramatics — with helping the women’s version of the sport gain credibility in their country. Even skeptics of women’s soccer couldn’t deny this.

Eventually, in the last moments, Morgan would end it.

The United States won, the Canadians fumed.

“[Pedersen’s] got that to live with,” Herdman said. “We’ll move on from this, I wonder if she’ll be able to.”

“Put on your American jersey,” Canadian Melissa Tancredi said she told Pedersen. “That’s who you played for today.”

For the Canadians, this was an upset denied. They hadn’t defeated their rivals in 11 years, a stretch that included 26 games. The Americans were the global powerhouse, rich with funding and talent, the chosen team of the establishment. They were … well, Canada.

Christine Sinclair (12) and Canada feel unjustly done by their loss to the USWNT at the London Olympics. (Action Images/Jason Cairnduff)
Christine Sinclair (12) and Canada feel unjustly done by their loss to the USWNT at the London Olympics. (Action Images/Jason Cairnduff)

When they arrived that night for the game, the U.S. was given the opulent locker room of Manchester United, the stadium’s famed tenant. Canada got a small visitor’s space. The decision by Pedersen just played into it all. They would go into win the bronze medal, but it never felt right.

One person with no regrets was Wambach. In this case, a woman whose 184 international goals were the most in the sport’s history (until Sinclair broke the record herself) figured out how to impact the game even when she didn’t even have the ball.

“Yes [the call] is uncharacteristic,” Wambach told Yahoo Sports the next day. “But the rules are the rules. You can say it’s gamesmanship, you can say it’s smart, but I’m a competitor. We needed to get a goal. They’re trying to waste time, I’m trying to speed it up.

“I wasn’t yelling, I was just counting,” Wambach continued. “I got to 10 seconds right next to the referee and at 10 seconds she blew the whistle.”

It was genius. Eventually even Herdman, the Canadian coach, would agree.

“Good on her …” he said a couple days after the match. “She knows how to win matches … She’s a quality player who’ll do whatever it takes to win.”

Both Herdman and Sinclair were “investigated” by FIFA for their comments about the refereeing. There are rumors of a heated exchange between Sinclair and Pedersen, but details are unknown. Sinclair eventually served a four-game suspension.

Pedersen, meanwhile, returned to ref in Norway, but, according to the Globe and Mail, resigned from working international tournaments with FIFA in 2013, not long after the Olympics.

The legacy of the game carries on. And now it’s back. Same two teams. A number of the same players (Sinclair, Morgan, Rapinoe).

Same Olympic semifinals.

So, yes Alex Morgan, one more like that on Monday, one more U.S.-Canada classic, would be quite fine.

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