Tuesday, August 6, 2013

August 6, 2012: 26 hectic minutes

MANCHESTER, England - For the first 53 minutes of the Olympic semifinal match, there wasn't anything too unusual. Well, the United States women's national soccer team was trailing Canada, so that was unusual, but aside from the underdog leading, it was pretty typical for an international soccer game. Canada was up 1-0 after a magnificent individual effort from Christine Sinclair, but then there was the traditional medley of great chances and near misses that are so common in good soccer games.

When Megan Rapinoe set up a corner kick for the United States early in the second half, the Americans had to be ruing all their missed chances, wondering what it would take to get one into Canada's net. It looked like another blown chance when Rapinoe sent the corner kick to the front post, where no teammates were waiting. But after a chaotic moment, where the ball, two Canadian defenders, and goalkeeper Erin McLeod converged on the near post, the ball somehow squeaked in.

At first glance, it looked like the Canadians deflected the ball in themselves, an own goal. That was fine, of course - they all counted the same. But after seeing the replay, the truth was revealed: Rapinoe had bent the ball in herself. Not only was it a fantastic goal, but it was a vital one, tying the game at 1-1.

But Sinclair wasn't impressed. Instead, she accepted the challenge. She scored her second of the game, knocking home a header off a corner kick, just 13 minutes after Rapinoe's goal, giving Canada the lead back. Then it was Rapinoe's turn again. Three minutes after Sinclair's goal, Rapinoe had the ball at the edge of the box, a good position for a cross. But she had no interest in that, instead drilling a shot off the post and into the net to tie the game again.

Again, Sinclair responded, scoring three minutes later on another header off a corner kick to finish the hat trick. Canada had its third lead of the match, and people who had been paying attention turned to the Americans to see how they would respond.

It wasn't the Americans who responded, but match referee Christina Pedersen, who awarded the Americans an indirect free kick in the penalty area after McLeod took too much time to release the ball. While the call was technically correct - she held the ball for more than 10 seconds when the rule allows for only 6 - it's one that's rarely called. For it to be called at this stage was almost unthinkable. On the ensuing free kick, Canada was called for a hand ball, which lead to Abby Wambach tying the game from the penalty spot.

At this point, Pedersen's interesting call overshadowed what had been a manic 26 minutes. In the period from Rapinoe's corner kick to Wambach's goal, five goals had been scored, some of them truly spectacular, and those 26 minutes were some of the best played on any soccer field that year. However, after the excitement of Wambach's goal, nobody could get the fourth goal. Wambach had two golden opportunities, sending one cross just wide and knocking another off the cross bar, but they were not to be.

With all 90 minutes, plus 30 minutes of extra time, used up, the clock was running down to its final minute before a penalty shootout would determine who would advance to the gold medal game. It seemed too bad - a game this hectic, this great didn't deserve to be decided by the randomness of penalties. But it looked like that's how it was going to end until Wambach sent a pass out wide toward Heather O'Reilly. O'Reilly chased it down, sent it into the box - right to the head of Alex Morgan, who, while falling down, knocked it in just under the crossbar.

And after scoring that goal, the goal that won perhaps the greatest women's soccer game ever played, Morgan didn't jump up and down. Instead, she just put her hands on her head, almost in shock. She couldn't believe she had scored. Nobody could believe what had happened. It was a truly brilliant ending to a brilliant game.

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