Golden Girls

Canada’s golden moment in football has finally come. After years of coming close but falling just short at the Summer Olympics, The Reds are finally seeing gold. Although the path to top honors was certainly no task it was all worth it to say this: The Canadian Women’s National Team are gold medalists in women’s soccer.

While this year’s tournament was held under interesting circumstances (no fans were allowed in the stadium and players were largely confined to their hotel rooms aside from travel) the competition was stiff. For Canada and coach Bev Priestman, their group stage was no cakewalk facing hosts Japan, Chile, and tournament favorites Great Britain. A 2-1 win over Chile was bookended by two draws that on paper were good results, but were troublesome given that Canada had led in both matches.

But the results were enough to earn Bev Priestman’s side a spot in the knockout round. It was an opportunity that Canada, and in particular their defense, seized on. In the quarterfinals, they held Brazil and Marta scoreless defeating the South American powerhouses 4-3 in penalties. The back four and goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe put on a similar stellar performance in the semifinals, blanking the United States 1-0.

Getting past the United States and extinguishing the ghosts of 2008 was certainly a step in the right direction, but the biggest hurdle still remained: winning gold. While Canada’s golden generation of players (Labbe, Christine Sinclair, Allysha Chapman, Erin McLeod, and Desiree Scott) have impressed at both the Olympics and the World Cup they have never made a final at the senior level. Their two bronze medals at the London and Rio de Janeiro Olympics are certainly signs of the improvement that Canadian women’s soccer have made through the years but for a group that expects to win third place wasn’t good enough. So the timing seemed perfect in terms of where this side is at in their careers and where Canadian soccer is going.

Against Sweden though, a gold medal wasn’t a slam dunk. The Swedes led by Stinus Blacksteinus (five goals) had dominated the competition outscoring opponents 13-3. There is also a bit of history between the two sides with the same Sweden side having ended Canada’s hopes of World Cup glory in 2019 in France. The two matches played out in a very similar fashion with Blackstenius giving the Swedes the lead and Canada having to pry open a tightly organized defense.

But in the second half, Canada found their footing on the attack using their size and speed to create some attacking chances. In the 67th minute Sinclair earned her side a penalty after video replay showed a foul inside the Swedish penalty box. With the chance to bring her team level, midfielder Jesse Fleming delivered, scoring her second goal in as many games.

After the remainder of the second half and extratime saw the match still tied, the two teams went into penalties. The drama continued to ramp up as Labbe and Swedish goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl each made several key stops to the score at 2-2. In the sixth and decisive round Labbe’s save on a shot by Jonna Anderson and Julia Grosso’s strike sealed the result for Canada.

“I’ll be honest, the last couple days have been really … I’ve struggled in terms of anxiety. Being overwhelmed,” said Labbe after the match. “But my mental strength came in. When I step on the pitch, that’s my comfort zone.”

For Sinclair, who has been a member of the senior national team for 20 years and holds the record for most international goals scored at 187, the moment had been years in the making. But as she has done throughout the years, her focus was on what this means for her teammates and for the women’s game in Canada.

“I can’t even describe this right now,” said Sinclair after the match. “We came here with the goal of changing the colour of the medal and we landed on the podium. Never say die.”

The moment was also not lost on defender Quinn, who became the first-ever open transgender and non-binary player to win an Olympic medal.

 “What I want to do is make sure kids keep playing sports. For me that was so important. Soccer is such a joy in my life and I hope that people see they can be themselves and continue to play sports and there’s a place for them.”

The victory cements Canadian women’s soccer at the top of the international game, but the work for acceptance and development continues. For Sinclair, the next goal for Canadian women’s soccer is simple: a professional domestic league.

“The next step is we have to get a professional league and teams in Canada. I think it’s unacceptable the Olympic champions don’t have a professional environment in Canada. That’s the next task.”

USWNT Earn Bronze But Questions Remain

While their neighbors to the north were celebrating their first Olympic Gold, the tone around the United States Women’s National Team is a little more subdued. Despite earning a bronze medal, the feeling about coming up short and what could have been have overtaken any sort of revelry.

Third place games in international football are typically a mix of veteran players getting one last chance to put on the jersey and younger players a chance to say hello for the first time. For the USWNT the first part was definitely true, with veterans Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe each scoring a brace to earn third place. Longtime veteran defender Becky Sauerbrunn once again ran the defense and midfielders Christen Press and Lindsay Horan managed the match through the middle.

But as had been the case throughout the tournament something seemed to be missing. Against a younger Australian side, the veterans struggled to keep up relying heavily on their experience to get them out of tough situations. While that helped secure the result this was the bronze medal match, not the gold medal match. For a side that is accustomed to being in championships it seemed like a bit of a downer.

This wasn’t the first time that the USWNT didn’t look like the USWNT. In group play, they were picked apart by Sweden 3-0 and had an underwhelming draw against the Aussies. While they did earn a big win over minnows New Zealand to punch their ticket to the next round, it still didn’t inspire much confidence. Things seemed to turn around against the Netherlands, giving supporters a bit of hope heading into their semifinal match against Canada. But a lack of attacking spice in the semifinals spelled an end to their Olympic Gold Medal aspirations.

For the USWNT and Head Coach Vlatko Andonovski a change is needed. The Summer Olympics exposed the age of the current roster and not having young players on their bench to go to change the pace hurt them. It is never easy to make a change in a national team roster but given the recent run of results and the improvements that other national teams have made; it may be time.

This article was from a past issue of Soccer 360 magazine. Click here to subscribe to future issues.

Written by Sean Maslin

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