U.S. shows grit to overcome Canada
The U.S. women's Olympic team came out on the better side of a marathon match that saw a witch's brew of rain, thunder and lightning pelt Shanghai Stadium. The Canucks couldn't match the Americans, who sealed a thrilling 2-1 victory in extra time to advance to the semifinals against Japan.
Canada fell behind early on Angela Hucles' goal in the 12th minute and couldn't find a rhythm after keeper Erin McLeod left the pitch with an injury. But after a lengthy rain delay (100 minutes), Canada made the most of the restart opportunity and a Carli Lloyd giveaway in the back, drawing even on a thunderous Christine Sinclair shot.
Abby Wambach's pre-Olympic, post-injury prediction rang true. "Natasha Kai is, I think, one of the X factors of this team going forward," she said. "I think she has great things ahead of her. All I can say about Tash is that I think she's going to make huge impact for us this Olympics in Beijing."
What Kai might lack in technical ability, she more than makes up for with heart. Wambach and her team's wildest vision was realized when Kai nailed a diving header in the 102nd minute to put the U.S. women back on dry land. It was the fourth goal the Hawaiian native scored against Canada this year and her most heroic.
Although Canada tested the Americans' defense early and often, launching several deep balls into the back four, Heather Mitts, Kate Markgraf, Lori Chalupny and captain Christie Rampone coped comfortably, consistently heading the balls out of the danger zone.
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Other than the one goal allowed, the U.S. back line put forth a textbook performance. The defense played tight, supporting formations, yielding only one corner kick and a handful of out-of-range free kicks.
For a good portion of the second half and the beginning of the first extra-time period, the U.S. and Canada cautiously circled like boxers in a ring, one waiting for the other to make the first move. For once, the U.S. showed savvy, building the attack from the back, testing the waters with a jab at Canada's defense every few minutes -- all while maintaining possession of the ball.
The rare opportunities for the Canadians came through the midfield, after Lloyd and Shannon Boxx made several questionable passes and tackles that were easily picked off by Kara Lang and Melissa Tancredi. Hope Solo made two diving saves, including an 88th-minute stop to deny Brittany Timko, snuffing out whatever latent spark an already-gassed Canadian attack might have offered.
Wing midfielders Lindsay Tarpley and Heather O'Reilly had a field day on the flanks, as they generated attacking run after run and several scintillating crosses from the byline. If it weren't for Tarpley and O'Reilly, the midfield would have collapsed into a sinkhole, as Lloyd couldn't seem to muster a decent pass, much less a shot, perhaps out of sheer exhaustion.
Hucles continues to improve with each match, showing poise and sly attacking skills; she put three of eight shots on target, scoring on a tap-in goal and coming close on the two other occasions.
Despite coach Even Pellerud having announced he would retire following the Olympics, his squad made vast strides in becoming the first Canadian soccer team to advance to the quarterfinals in a world championship. The Canadian women deserve tremendous praise for their efforts against the U.S., especially No. 2 keeper Karina LeBlanc, who made several terrific stops against Amy Rodriguez and Hucles.
"I feel just like the players, exhausted but thrilled to bits," U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said in a FIFA news release. "It was a great win. We played well before the rain delay, but they surprised us with their equalizer after we resumed. Fortunately, we managed to compose ourselves again, take the lead once more and create even more scoring opportunities. It's a great moment for us."
U.S. player ratings (scale 1-10):
Hope Solo, 6 -- There wasn't much she could do against Sinclair's goal, but credit goes to Solo for making two aggressive saves to keep the U.S. in the game -- no easy task in wet conditions.
Christie Rampone, 7 -- Not to sound like a broken record, but Rampone has shown she is a world-class defender, and she rallied the team for its best defensive performance yet.
Kate Markgraf, 6 -- Markgraf's return was a huge boon for the U.S. defense. Her heading ability, height and speed helped shut down Canada's attack.
Heather Mitts, 6 -- Mitts had one of the toughest matchups against 5-foot-10 Kara Lang but still won virtually every air and ground ball.
Lori Chalupny, 6 -- Can't say enough about the spunky defender, who made a number of sliding saves and provided the engine behind the Americans' counterattacks.
Lindsay Tarpley, 6 -- Tarpley initiated some of the nicest passing sequences put together by the Americans and made a concerted effort to get herself more touches on the ball.
Carli Lloyd, 3 -- The attacking midfielder had an uncharacteristically subpar game, telegraphing virtually all her passes. She spent quite a bit of time on the ground after repeatedly getting knocked off the ball, and the referee wasn't going to give her the time of day.
Shannon Boxx, 5 -- Boxx played a much better second half, executing several penetrating crosses, one of which found Kai's head, but she had a dreadfully slow first half, hitting a series of long balls right to the Canadian keeper's feet.
Heather O'Reilly, 6 -- O'Reilly more or less got the U.S. on board for the second straight game with a well-placed header. Her work ethic on the wings earned the U.S. a number of timely corner kicks.
Angela Hucles, 7 -- Hucles is a seasoned player finally coming into her own. She's currently the highest scoring player on the team and made a number of impressive attacking runs, which she'll finish as she earns more time up top.
Amy Rodriguez, 4 -- As predicted, Rodriguez struggled with her teammates' lofted balls all game against Candance Chapman. Despite her difficulty breaking through Canada's physical ranks, Sundhage kept her in for the full 90 minutes.
Natasha Kai, 6 -- Kai showed much better composure on the ball and looks to regain her confidence after a stumbling start to the Olympics. However, she needs to cut down on the number of times she's caught offsides.
Lauren Cheney, 5 --The UCLA star's first appearance went over quite well, as the striker earned herself a couple of dangerous opportunities. Cheney showed composure and aggressiveness, despite earning a questionable yellow card going for a 50-50 ball.
Tobin Heath, 4 -- A substitute for Lindsay Tarpley, Heath didn't offer much on the wing. It looked as if the big-game pressure might have gotten under her skin. She also tried to do too much with the ball, to no avail.
Lindsey Dolich is a contributor to ESPN The Magazine and covers the U.S. women's national team for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at email@example.com.