Bobby Charlton-a member of Manchester Unit’s Holy Trinity, along with Denis Law and George Best – famously labelled it the “Theatre of Dreams.”
The women on Canada’s Olympic soccer team certainly know what he meant. They want their dream to extend – at the cost of a nightmare for their oldest rivals – and maybe the field of fantasy that is Old Trafford, Man U’s legendary home pitch, can be of help. And help is likely to be needed.
In the last 51 matches the USA and Canada have played, the Canadians have won just three times. Since women’s football became an Olympic medal sport at Atlanta in 1996, the Americans have won three of the four championships, losing only to Norway in the 2000 final.
They are the gold standard, which the Canadians concede. They just don’t want them to be the gold medalists. The winner here goes to the finals Thursday at another shrine (if totally rebuilt), Wembley, and the winner plays the loser of the other semi for the bronze.
Canada of course, is in the Olympics for only the second time and in the semi-finals for the first. They are on a roll, undefeated in three matches since being beaten by Japan 2-1 in their opener.
The Canadians are adapting from game to game, as Ancaster’s Melissa Tancredi promised they would, under head coach John Herdman’s constant flood of film review and analysis. With striker Christine Sinclair heavily marked and not nearly enough involved in the opening game, he dropped the all-time Canadian star back a bit to find space for her considerable skills, which opened up other players too. And the offence immediately became more multi-dimensional.
And against the home nation in the quarter-finals the Canadians played their most physical match, led in that department by Tancredi, taking advantage not only of the less-foul-happy referees in the women’s game but of the Britons having played over their heads to go 3-0 in their group. When challenged hard, the Brits whined more than they dined.
What the Canadians call a coaching “evolution” to the more complex, modern methodology of Herdman, without ripping apart the base previous coach Carolina Morace had built, could be one of the limited number of advantages, along with a throbbing sense of momentum, that Canada has moving into the semi.
With so many meetings between the two teams, Herdman has a lot of film and information to work with, and will likely make more adjustments. Even before they got on the run here he had convinced his team to be prepared for any kind of game-to-game switch in tactics.
“It’s not your same old Canada,” is the way Tancredi put it a few weeks ago.
Canada last beat the U.S. 11 years ago, and the Americans have already played in Old Trafford, beating the Republic of Korea 1-0 there in front of 29,000 fans last Tuesday on a goal by Abby Wambach, who has connected in all four games to move into a tie with Tancredi atop the Olympic tournament scoring table. Sinclair, with three, is the only other player among the four surviving teams who has scored more than twice.
This is the deepest Canadian women have ever advanced in the five Olympics that have featured women’s soccer. They failed to qualify for the first three, then lost to the Americans 2-1 in extra time of the quarter-finals at Beijing in 2008.
Built to accommodate and celebrate a Man U team which had just won the league championship, Old Trafford was originally designed to hold 100,000 fans – and this was more than a century ago – but financial restraints scaled things down to 80 per cent of that. It has been the site of some of the most memorable games in Association Football history, but this will be just the second women’s international played at the national icon, which has undergone numerous facelifts and rearrangements and was bombed heavily during the second World War, but which has stood on the same grounds for 102 years.
The Canadians would to like add Monday’s game to the list of most memorable Old Trafford fixtures, and make it the most memorable match in the history of Canadian soccer, with an underdog victory.
Goalkeepers: Karina LeBlanc, Erin McLeod
Midfielders: Kaylyn Kyle, Diana Matheson, Kelly Parker, Sophie Schmidt, Desiree Scott.