The U.S. women's national team's gold medal hopes are over after falling to Canada 1-0 in the semifinals of the Olympics on a VAR-given penalty kick converted by Jessie Fleming. After two straight bronze medals, Canada will be the one playing for top honors in Tokyo, while the U.S. is left playing for the third spot on the podium.
The loss added insult to injury for the U.S, which lost goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher to injury half an hour into the match in Kashima. Naeher, who saved two penalty kicks in a shootout triumph over the Netherlands in the quarterfinals and a penalty kick in regulation that could have given the Dutch a late lead, was forced out and replaced by Adrianna Franch, who guessed correctly on Fleming's 75th-minute penalty kick but couldn't quite reach it.
"Not our best game. Not our best tournament," Megan Rapinoe told NBC after the match, which was the U.S.'s first loss to Canada in 20 years.
The result means that, once again, the reigning Women's World Cup champion does not win gold at the subsequent Olympics. The U.S. was a heavy favorite to snap that streak, but a 3–0 defeat to Sweden in the group opener was an indication that perhaps the road to gold wouldn't quite be so smooth. Despite a bounce-back performance vs. New Zealand and a spirited shootout win vs. the Netherlands in the quarterfinals, that ultimately proved true.
As for the incident involving Naeher, it happened in the 20th minute of a disjointed match. While going up for an aerial ball in the box, Naeher collided with Julie Ertz and landed awkwardly, appearing to hyperextend her right knee. The injury kept Naeher down on the ground for an extended period of time while she received treatment and looked like it would call backup Franch into action, but Naeher worked through it and remained in the game.
That didn't last long, though. Upon taking a goal kick soon after testing out her knee, Naeher immediately signaled to the bench that she needed to come off, with Franch indeed stepping in for her.
That was the most notable event of a chance-less first half. U.S. manager Vlatko Andonovski turned again to Lynn Williams, who had a goal and assist vs. the Netherlands, keeping the more-accomplished likes of Sam Mewis, Rapinoe, Christen Press and Carli Lloyd on the bench, while Tierna Davidson replaced Abby Dahlkemper at center back.
In terms of the flow of play, the U.S. applied some early pressure after a hard foul on Lindsey Horan committed by Ashley Lawrence. The initial free kick didn't lead to much, but the ensuing wave of attack resulted in extended possession in the Canadian third and a fifth-minute corner kick.
While the U.S. continued to boss possession and keep the flow of play in Canada's half, the Canadians remained resolute in their shape while also employing a physical style of play to keep the U.S. from piecing together anything cohesive building toward goal.
Canada's first moment of danger came in the 15th minute, when Nichelle Prince got in behind and was in a footrace with Becky Sauerbrunn heading toward the U.S. goal. Sauerbrunn, the U.S. captain, timed her slide tackle to perfection—and she had to, or else it could've easily resulted in a Canada penalty.
Canada seized the initiative over the ensuing five minutes and kept the pressure on the U.S., including a pivotal moment that nearly knocked Naeher out of the game.
Neither side was able to generate much in the way of dangerous chances throughout the opening half, though, and that continued into stoppage time, of which there was a lengthy amount due to Naeher's injury. The U.S. worked its way to a semi-chance, with Williams crossing for Alex Morgan, only for the forward to head well wide of the frame.
The U.S. started the second half much like it did the first: with loads of possession but little that was truly threatening. The most dangerous play involved Tobin Heath playing Williams through with a deft flick, but the North Carolina Courage star was offside, and her left-footed shot was over-hit and wayward, anyway.
The U.S. maintained the pressure over the opening 15 minutes of the half, on one sequence earning three consecutive corner kicks. Not a single shot on goal came from any of them, though, leaving the favorite grasping for answers.
In search of that spark, Andonovski sent on a full forward line change at the hour mark, with Rapinoe, Lloyd and Press replacing Morgan, Heath and Williams.
Lloyd finally generated the first shot on goal in the 65th minute, curling a chance from just inside the box that Stephanie Labbé awkwardly parried over the bar. Nothing came from the ensuing corner, though.
From a separate corner three minutes later, Labbé came up with an even bigger save, denying Ertz, who had completed her near-post run and glanced a header on target. After yet another corner, Horan was able to redirect a meekly hit header toward the goal, which Labbé scooped up with ease.
Two minutes after that, it was Press who challenged Labbé, firing a left-footed chance from outside the box that the goalkeeper fielded cleanly, with Lloyd bearing down in the event of a rebound.
Just when it looked like the U.S. was knocking on the door, Canada took the lead out of nowhere. Davidson, trying to play a ball at the right side of the U.S. box, wound up inadvertently kicking Deanne Rose's leg from behind. Initially, the play went uncalled, but a VAR review resulted in a penalty kick, and Fleming beat Franch with her attempt to give Canada a 1–0 lead in the 75th minute.
The U.S. pushed for an equalizer and it nearly came in the 86th minute through Lloyd, whose header hit off the crossbar and over. There was no last-gasp rally, though, and the U.S. fell to the unaccustomed position of playing for bronze, which it will do on Thursday against Australia, a 1–0 loser to Sweden in the day's other semifinal. It was going to be a group-stage rematch either way, and either way it'll be a disappointing ending for a team that strives for gold.
"It's not the color we want, but there's still a medal on the line," Rapinoe said. "This sucks."
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