It was the rematch for which Canada had hungered, this time in a sold-out home stadium packed with Canadian fans re-living the emotional Olympic semi-final between the two North American foes last August. But it didn't have the same gripping drama. For 68 minutes on Sunday, the home team held off the top-ranked Americans. But then stunning U.S. star Alex Morgan broke loose, once again spoiling Canada's dreams.
The Canadian and American women's soccer teams met in an exhibition match at Toronto's BMO Field on Sunday for the first time since Canada nearly pulled off one of the greatest upsets in Olympic soccer history last summer. Team Canada's goal in the friendly was to stifle the hot two American scorers – Morgan and Abby Wambach. That worked for about two thirds of the game, and Canada lost steam. Morgan, the very player who had scored the winning goal to top Canada at the Olympics, finally broke loose and scored two goals. Canadian-born U.S. player Sydney Leroux added another, and popped her American jersey at fans who booed her, and the U.S triumphed 3-0.
"We got a little sloppy as fatigue set in and things opened up," said Canada manager John Herdman. "We got punished exactly as we thought we would."
The Canadian women's team entered the contest with a less-than-sterling record versus the U.S., currently the top-ranked team in the world. They had won just three of 52 meetings with the U.S dating back to 1986, the last a 3-0 win at the Algarve Cup back in 2001.
Yet, fuelled by the emotions that lingered from last August, the heart-breaking memories of controversial late-game calls from the Norwegian referee that served to frame that contest, it made one wonder if Canada would win this friendly. Maybe the momentum was there, maybe the frenzied setting could help – at home with the CN Tower standing in view, packed with fans in red and white, teams of fanatic cheering girls decked in soccer uniforms, banging their thunder-sticks wildly.
Canada kept the Americans scoreless through the first half. Every time the U.S. goalkeeper held the ball, the fanatic Canadian crowd would count the seconds aloud until she got rid of it, just as Wambach had done in earshot of the referee on that memorable night at the Olympics, which kicked off a chain of calls that lead to the equalizing American goal.
Herdman was tickled by it, joking that had the Norwegian official been working the game, Canada might have had about 20 free kicks off goalkeeper time-wasting whistles.
Every time Christine Sinclair even approached the box in front of the U.S. net on Sunday, the stadium erupted in the deafening screams of adoring young girls, memories of Sinclair's heroic three-goal night against the Americans at the Olympics dancing in their minds. But she would be kept scoreless, the top target of American defenders.
"For about 70 minutes, we really didn't give them any chances. In the first half, they literally created nothing against us, and I think that's the first time we've shut them out like that," said Sinclair. "But we've got about 20 minutes where we have to close the gap."
Canada's defenders held strong for a long while. Carmelina Moscato, Emily Zurrer, Lauren Sesselmann and especially 17-year-old newcomer Kadeisha Buchanan banded together to thwart several scoring attempts, most dramatically a charging Morgan barrelling toward the net. Herdman beamed about the talented young Buchanan and her future.
"She's unbelievable, she owned Abby Wambach today," Herdman said. "A 17-year-old kid came out here and did an unbelievable job. We're proud of her."
Buchanan, who is perhaps even more soft-spoken and shy than the veteran captain Sinclair, humbly took questions from a throng of press after her debut with the senior team.
"The feedback is positive, yeah, but I think I have to keep doing what I do," said Buchanan.
Wambach too was impressed.
"She's great, and I have a big bruise on my foot from today to prove it," Wambach said. "She's 17, which proved how the progression of soccer is going in Canada. I'm proud that this is a rivalry. Not too long ago we weren't looking forward to these games [versus Canada], but now we are, and now it gets a sold-out crowd."
Herdman said his players ran out of steam midway through the second half, and when his stars had to come off the field, he doesn't yet have the quality in depth needed to replace them. The U.S. has scored an average of three goals a game versus Canada, and they repeated that today, which disappointed him. But he's elated for Canada's chances at home at the 2015 Women's World Cup.
"I'm going to do what I can to get every inch and ounce out of these players in the next two, three years I have," said Herdman. "But those girls gave you their best today."