Maura Gladys finally composes herself to write on the US’s heart-stopping win.
Some games are won with heart and soul and will and belief and all of the other intangibles that pepper sports vernacular when a monumental moment unfolds. But the U.S. women’s national team epic victory over Canada in yesterday’s Olympic semifinal match wasn’t won with intangibles. It was won in the physical realm. With clocks and feet and arms and legs and heads. The game was more a grueling boxer’s bout than a magical fairytale, with the U.S. going punch for punch with Canada before landing the knockout blow with less than thirty seconds left in the second overtime. It was physical, grinding, utterly unexpected and profoundly moving. And now, the body (and other) parts that meant the most during those 123 minutes and 30 seconds.
Christine Sinclair’s eyes.
One look at Christine Sinclair’s normally steely eyes after she netted a hat trick against the United States and all one saw was pure fire. Sinclair put Team Canada on her back, giving them the lead three separate times with three world-class goals, and her eyes burned with the passion and power of someone that could both transform and transcend a game. While Mellissa Tancredi and Sophie Schmidt, among others played supporting roles for Canada, the game was Sinclair’s and Sinclair’s alone. Her first goal came in the 22nd minute, serving notice to the U.S. that Canada would not be the punching bag they had been in the past. Her second came as an answer to Megan Rapinoe’s flukey corner, sending a message that a comeback would not be that easy. Her third came just three minutes after Rapinoe’s second equalizer, a powerful statement that she would not be beaten. And she wasn’t. The U.S could not stop Canada’s greatest female soccer player. It’s the ten other players that the U.S. defeated.
Megan Rapinoe’s Right Foot
Megan Rapinoe’s right foot (not to be confused with her left foot, the one that served up Abby Wambach’s game-tying goal against Brazil last summer) was the only thing keeping the United States in the game for most of regulation. Rapinoe’s first goal was a bit of a fluke, a well-taken corner kick that was misplayed by Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod and her defender and trickled in by the near post. But her her second equalizer, made up for it. In the 70th minute, left back Kelley O’Hara found Rapinoe across the field at the corner of the penalty box. Rapinoe took a touch, and fired, sending a cracker off the far post, and into the net, evening the game for the second time. Just like Sinclair, she would not be denied.
The game, which was physical from the start, maintained it’s physicality through the entire duration. Just as goals were traded like punches, actual kicks and pulls and tackles were swapped. And it showed. Schmitt went down with a nasty tackle, in what looked like an MCL tear, but remarkably kept going. Rachel Buehler took a nasty knock, as did Carli Lloyd, in the form of a head stomp. As the game dragged into overtime, the battered state of the 22 bodies on the field grew worse and worse, and by the end of the game, there was barely anyone able to stand.
Since this game was defined by it’s place in the physical world, it makes complete sense that the true fulcrum of the match was the ticking of six seconds on a clock. At 76:37, Erin McLeod gathered the ball in front of her goal, then slowly got up, held the ball in her hands, bounced it a few times, and drop-kicked it back into play. The whole thing took about 9 seconds. In doing so, McLeod violated a FIFA regulation which states, that “An indirect free kick is awarded to the opposing tea if a goalkeeper, inside his own penalty area, commits any of the following offenses: controls the ball with his hands for more than six seconds before releasing it from his possession.” This rule is never enforced. Ever. But the call led to an indirect free kick, which led to a handball in the box, which led to Abby Wambach’s game-tying penalty kick. It’s hard to chalk that up to luck, bias, or anything else besides six seconds, ticking on a clock.
In the end, in the very, very end, it wasn’t the head of Abby Wambach, but Alex Morgan who nodded in the final of seven goals. Thanks to an impeccable Heather O’Reilly cross, all an exhausted Morgan had to do was make contact, tipping the ball with jussssst enough arc to loop over an outstretched McLeod. When the ball crossed the goal line, a depleted Morgan picked herself up off the group, raised her hands, and stood there. Sydney Leroux was the first to reach her, and wrapped her arms around her, in a half-hug, half-kick stand move. Lauren Cheney, Kelley O’Hara, Abby Wambach and others soon joined. There was no extravagant celebration, no cartwheels or group “worm” lines. There was just a group of exhausted soccer players, gathered in a relieved embrace.
So now, it’s the rematch that everyone wanted. The U.S. will take on Japan on Thursday afternoon, the next chapter in what is becoming a legendary narrative. The U.S. will be tired and weary. Japan players will be able to conserve their energy even more with heavy possession. Other than that, we’ll figure out what everything else means after the game is played on Thursday, and the United States has achieved redemption.