A penalty awarded by VAR and converted by Chelsea’s Jessie Fleming has earned Canada a place in the Olympic final and a first win against the USA in 20 years.
In a humid but clouded-over Kashima Stadium, the US team looked sluggish, the world champions’ passing was sloppy and they struggled to put their stamp on the first half. Instead it was the Canadian duo Nichelle Prince and Janine Beckie who looked the most threatening going forward.
Prince twice had the opportunity to give the Canadians the lead against a team they had not beaten since March 2001, but a poor first touch put the ball wide for a goal-kick in the 14th minute and then a bold last-ditch tackle from Becky Saurbrunn prevented the forward from pulling the trigger when played through moments later.
The US were dealt a big blow shortly before the half-hour mark. Alyssa Naeher, who saved two spot-kicks in the quarter-final penalty shootout against the Netherlands to earn progression and pull her further out of the shadow left by Hope Solo, landed awkwardly after colliding with Julie Ertz, jarring a leg and crumpling to the ground in pain. Following a lengthy stoppage the goalkeeper played on but a goal-kick saw her wince, pull up and wave to the bench for the Portland Thorns keeper Adrianna Franch, who had just six previous caps, to enter the fray in her place.
Much of the pre-match buildup had drawn on the Old Trafford meeting of these two sides at the same stage of the competition in 2012. However in Kashima, an industrial city on the coast to the east of Tokyo, the Olympic rematch offered some of the physicality of that battle but little of the flair. Four of the Canada squad were involved in their 2012 bronze medal campaign while there are six members of the US team that won gold in 2012 (with Christen Press an alternate for the London Games too).
The arrival on the hour of the double Olympic champion Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe was followed by the first meaningful attempts on the Canada goal. First, a curling strike from Lloyd was pushed over by Stephanie Labbé, then Labbé saved Ertz’s point-blank header from a Rapinoe corner.
The Canada substitute Deanne Rose, who made a more understated entrance alongside Lloyd and Rapinoe, would prove the difference. Bursting in front of Tierna Davidson, she stretched out and nipped the ball away from the defender. The slightest pressure from Davidson was enough for Rose to go to ground and after consulting VAR the referee awarded a penalty. The Christine Sinclair, the leading all-time international goalscorer, picked up the ball and handed it to Fleming and the youngster fired past Franch to give Canada the lead in the 74th minute. They held on for the historic win.