Intense Rivalry Makes U.S.-Canada Match a Must-See
February 20, 2016
WITH OLYMPIC QUALIFICATION SECURE courtesy of a 5-0 semifinal win over Trinidad and Tobago on Friday night, the United States women’s national team now heads into a seemingly meaningless final against Canada on Sunday (5:30pm ET, NBCSN).
Over the past few years, the Yanks' rivalry with its northern neighbors has become one of the team’s fiercest. On Friday, American goalkeeper Hope Solo characterized the two teams’ recent games as “bloodbaths."
While the U.S. has dominated the rivalry since its inception—accruing a 25-0-5 record—the Canadians have continued to close the gap in recent years.
The conflict between the two sides took an especially bitter turn in 2012, when the U.S. managed to come from behind three times in an Olympic semifinal matchup and finally pound the Canucks into submission with Alex Morgan’s 123rd-minute winner in extra time. The 4-3 win sent the Americans to the final against Japan—where they would win gold by avenging their World Cup loss from the previous summer—while the Canadians would claim bronze in the consolation game.
However, that match came to symbolize much more than a dramatic victory, and tension between the two sides lingered. Melissa Tancredi’s unpenalized head stomp of American midfielder Carli Lloyd in the contest caused bitterness among American fans, while the Canadians remained upset about a pair of questionable calls that led to the U.S.’ equalizer late in the second half.
When the Canadians—properly lauded as national heroes upon their return—appeared on the local media circuit, things only got worse.
One Canadian host, Michael Landsberg, called the Americans “bitchy” and referred to Lloyd—who had endured Tancredi’s vicious assault—as “flat head." All of this occurred with several prominent Canadian players on the set laughing as Landsberg spoke.
The following June, the U.S. traveled to Canada to play in a friendly and things got worse. When Canadian-born Sydney Leroux scored a stoppage-time goal for the U.S. in a 3-0 win, she immediately faced a series of racist and misogynist taunts.
One video caught Canadian fans directing obscene language toward Leroux and the American striker took to Twitter to defend herself.
When you chant racial slurs, taunt me and talk about my family don't be mad when I shush you and show pride in what I represent. #america— Sydney Leroux Dwyer (@sydneyleroux) June 3, 2013
Meanwhile, the Canadian announcers in the match characterized Leroux’s celebration as “classless” and “too American."
Leroux had faced abuse from Canadian fans before. In an Olympic qualifier hosted in Vancouver in 2012, fans chanted the following, “Where's your father, where's your father, where's your father, Syd Leroux? He's a deadbeat and he left you 'cause he doesn't love you.”
With the passage of time, the ferocity of the rivalry has subsided, but this match—even with both sides already having qualified for Rio—still means quite a bit.
For the Americans, the match represents an important opportunity to test themselves against quality competition—something rarely seen in their recent Victory Tour, or the Olympic qualification process thus far.
However, with an absurdly short turnaround time between Friday’s semifinals and Sunday’s final, it’s likely that neither team will be at their best.
Unquestionably, the Americans have the deeper roster and can rotate their starting lineup with less of a dropoff. Still, recent retirements, injuries, and pregnancies have forced U.S. head coach Jill Ellis into a number of roster and lineup changes and she still hasn’t seen her preferred XI against a top side.
In particular, the U.S. still doesn’t know whether its new midfield trio of Lloyd, Morgan Brian, and newcomer Lindsey Horan can get it done against top competition. It showed promise in December and matches thus far in 2016, but the combination hasn’t yet faced a top team.
On the Canadian side, two players to watch are Kadeisha Buchanan and Christine Sinclair. Buchanan recently made FIFPro’s World XI despite being only 20-years-old and still playing at West Virginia University.
For her part, Sinclair recently broke Mia Hamm’s record of 158 international goals when she tallied No. 159 against Trinidad and Tobago in the group stage earlier this week. In Canada’s semifinal win against Costa Rica on Friday, she notched two more, including an absolute stunner to put her side up 2-0.
She is now just 23 goals shy of Abby Wambach’s all-time international record of 184.
Just like its American counterparts, Canada may struggle with the short turnaround time. Late in the match against Costa Rica, after Canada had assured a result, Canadian head coach John Herdman withdrew Sinclair. On her way off the field, on the bench, and during the post-game celebration, Sinclair walked with a noticeable limp.
After the match, she said she has a nagging calf injury. Whether or not that affects her ability to play against the U.S. is unknown at this time.
The U.S. will also enter the match with some interesting question marks. Will Ellis give teenage phenom Mallory Pugh another start, or will Crystal Dunn return to the starting lineup? And, is it possible that Ellis gives some of the younger players—perhaps those on the Olympic roster bubble—an opportunity against Canada?
That might seem unlikely, but it wouldn’t be unprecedented. Back in October, and facing Brazil, Ellis gave surprise starts to youngsters Emily Sonnett and Horan. Horan hasn’t left the starting lineup since.
Ellis still has some tough decisions ahead regarding the Olympic roster, which has room for only 18 players—unlike the 20 players rostered for qualification.
The coach still needs to cut one of her three goalkeepers and there are several field players on the bubble, likely including Jaelene Hinkle, Stephanie McCaffrey, Sam Mewis, and Emily Sonnett. While Sonnett and Mewis represent limited depth at their positions, the Olympics are still six months away. Ellis hasn’t ruled out recalling veterans Whitney Engen or Heather O’Reilly, and the rise of players like Pugh and Horan in recent weeks proves that anything is possible.
With qualification assured, Ellis may take this opportunity to vet some of her inexperienced players in a competitive match and get a better idea of their ability against a top side.
Either way, it should be a fun one to watch.
John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.