By Steve Milton/Hamilton Spectator
OLD TRAFFORD It could have been them. Upon further review, it should have been them.
And, because it wasn’t, the Canadian women’s soccer team had trouble exiting the historic ghost-evoking pitch here Monday night. They lingered and lingered, tear-drenched, physically and emotionally wracked, and ultimately incensed after two-plus hours of some of the most riveting 11-aside football you’ll ever witness.
Except the Canadians did the math a little differently.
To a woman, they were convinced that Alex Morgan’s header that gave the U.S. a 4-3 victory in the Olympic semifinal, less than half a minute before penalty kicks would have been required, came in an extra 23 minutes that never should have been played.
“It felt like we were playing against more than 11 players,” said Ancaster’s Melissa Tancredi who deftly set up two of Christine Sinclair’s three magnificent goals, each of which gave Canada a lead they couldn’t quite retain.
Only the Canadians insist they did retain the third one. They felt American star Abby Wambach’s penalty kick goal that made it 3-3 in the 80th minute stemmed from a call against Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod that was unfair and unprecedented, the culmination of a long series of questionable-at-least decisions by Norwegian referee Christiana Pederson.
Even with the distance of a little reflection time, it’s impossible to disagree with them. We don’t buy the conspiracy theories that are certain to make the rounds but we do recognize incompetence when we see it.
“I don’t even know what to say,” said Tancredi, who then went on to say it. “I think it was very unfair and I hope the referee has something to think about because she could have done a better job, a way better job. This is the semifinals, we’re supposed to act like professionals, I think they should, too.
“I feel robbed. That’s all I can say.”
The Americans were awarded an indirect free kick close to the penalty spot after McLeod, waiting for her fullback to get in position, was deemed to have held the ball for more than the allotted six seconds. Normally, that’s a stalling tactic — which it wasn’t in this case — but still results in only a warning or at most, a yellow card. Especially so late in a medal-determining game.
The ensuing free kick by Megan Rapinoe, who scored the first two American goals, was hammered right at Canadian defender Marie-Eve Nault’s hand, which resulted in Wambach’s penalty kick opportunity.
That further angered the Canadians because, not long before, a hand ball in the American box that American Rapinoe, unlike Nault, had plenty of time to avoid went unpenalized.
“All you ask for is consistency,” said Canadian coach John Herdman, whose game plan was brilliant against an American team that had not surrendered a goal in the previous three-plus games.
“We’ll move on from this but I’m not sure that (Pederson) can.”
What tugged most at Herdman was that the Canadians were on the verge of defeating the U.S. for the first time since 2001 and clinching the team’s first Olympic medal, just a year after going three-and-out at last year’s World Cup. It was probably the best game ever played by a Canadian women’s team and they came out with nothing but a stomach full of bile.
You could argue that surrendering three leads (two by the Canucks’ count) isn’t laudable but the Americans are the best team in the world and a stronger case can be made for Herdman’s take that his team kept recovering, from tying goals and from rankling decisions.
It was a multi-tiered, physical, display by two old rivals who know each other as well as they know themselves. Tancredi, as usual, was at the forefront of the rugged play and credited Sinclair with the greatest game she’d ever seen by a teammate. Even American coach Pia Sundhage took a moment from lauding her own team’s unflappable determination to heap praise upon Sinclair. Sundhage thought her defence was stout “and she still scored three goals.”
Sundhage, like Herdman, said she’d never seen a call like the one against McLeod but when asked if she could muster some sympathy for the Canadians quickly replied, “No.”
The Canadians can still win the bronze with a victory over France at Coventry, but Sinclair was very blunt about what medal they should have been fighting for on Thursday: “It’s a shame in a game like that, which is so important, that the ref decided the result before the game started.”
Tancredi, face red and swollen and her lower jaw quivering, is convinced her team will easily rally emotionally for the bronze-medal game, but she was still in the moment long after the winning goal.
She said she told Pederson right after the call: “That’s ridiculous. I hope you can sleep tonight and put on your American jersey because that’s who you played for tonight. I was honest.
“I just don’t think any of us could believe what happened. Honestly. I didn’t want to leave (the pitch) because I couldn’t believe what happened. That was our game. That was our win to have.
“And it was just taken away.”