It must be asked: Was that just the best women's soccer game ever?
Well after the game was over, neither team had left the field at Old Trafford in Manchester – the United States because it never wanted the feeling to end, Canada because utter disbelief does not know what to do next.
Before the Olympic women's soccer tournament began, the anticipation built around a potential dream final: the US vs. Japan, arguably the two best teams in the world, in a rematch of the 2011 World Cup final. Now, that final is a reality, but it must be a comedown after this semifinal.
Three times, Canada scored, and three times the Americans responded. Canada's hat trick was all precision and skill. The American goals were more unusual: a goal directly from a corner kick, a goal that threatened to break the post in half, and some help from a referee changing the course of the match with a call that is almost never made.
Then, at the end of it, in the third minute of time added on to extra time – in other words, the 123rd minute – there was American forward Alex Morgan, her head obscured in a forest of white-shirted defenders, somehow finding the ball first for a headed goal and the most improbable of wins imaginable, 4-3.
In those 123 minutes, the Americans led for 30 seconds. They just happened to be the last 30 seconds.
It was a win that confirmed that, for the time being, the size of the American heart is still enough to beat the best women's teams in the world. But it was a loss that showed that Canada knew the weaknesses of the American team, exploited them, and by some measures played the better game.
Before Monday, the US women were 43-3-5 against the Canadians. But let's just call it 1-0, because for these cross-border rivals, something beautiful was born at Old Trafford: a new beginning.
Canada might not quite be on level terms yet – the Americans ran the match virtually from start to finish. But there is no question that the Americans had no answer for Christine Sinclair. And that is thanks to a stroke of brilliance from the Canadian coach.
Sinclair, the No. 3 all-time scorer in women's soccer history, had always been a forward, and logically so. But there, she always went head-to-head with a team's best defenders – and sometimes two of them. By slotting Sinclair into the Canadian midfield during the Olympics, coach John Herdman made a tactical masterstroke: Does an opposing team move a defenseman out to get her, leaving space behind her for the Canadian forwards to attack, or does a less defensively adept midfielder drop back to pick her up?
In the Americans' case, the answer was: neither. With the American midfield famous for wanting to push forward on offense, Sinclair repeatedly found spaces in which to operate, most notably on the first goal, when a brilliantly executed Canadian counterattack cut the American defense to shreds.
Americans use air power
The American response was predictable, and for much of the match, ineffective. It was nothing less than a medieval siege – and about as subtle, too. As opposed to trying to break down the Canadian defense through passing and intricate interplay, the Americans simply catapulted the ball down the field in hopes that it might find the head of Abby Wambach.
In recent years, as first Germany and then Brazil and Japan have caught up with the United States, this brand of soccer has been increasingly exposed. Good teams can defend it, and it gives away possession far too cheaply.
But Canada has still not quite reached that level. While it defended stoutly, the American team's speed meant that almost as soon as the Americans lost the ball, they recovered it, giving the the first half and the beginning of the second a lather, rinse, repeat feel to it. The Americans were determined to break down the Canadians through the air, and the Canadians were having none of it.
The breakthrough came from the unlikeliest of goals: a Megan Rapinoe corner kick that surprised the Canadians and skittered in directly at the near post.
From there, the game slowly ground into gear. Twice, Sinclair found seams in the befuddled American defense, scoring on headers in the 67th and 73rd minutes that gave US keeper Hope Solo no chance. For someone who is the game's third all-time leading scorer, it felt strangely like a coming-out party – the world at last able to enjoy the intelligence of her movement and the assurance of her finishing on one of the sport's biggest stages.
But again, Rapinoe's right foot proved to be by far the best thing America had going for it. She replied to the second Sinclair goal with a 70th-minute thunderbolt so powerful that it seemed to crack the post as it ricocheted in. By that point, the Americans were launching attacks from farther and farther forward as their relentless pressure began to wear down the Canadians. When the American third goal came, however, the circumstances could not have been more bizarre.
In the 79th minute, the referee called the Canadian keeper for holding on to the ball too long. Herdman called the decision "a bit random." It was more than that. For a major international knockout stage game, it was virtually unprecedented. The result was an American indirect free kick inside the penalty box, which resulted in the curious sight of the Canadians setting up a defensive wall virtually in front of their own goal.
Of course, it was Rapinoe's foot that struck it, and unfortunate Canadian defender Marie-Eve Nault whose arm it hit. Perhaps a bit harshly, but within the letter of the law, the referee awarded a penalty kick for hand ball in the box, and Wambach scored.
Over the final 40 minutes, Wambach missed an open net, Solo made a crucial sliding save of midfielder Sophie Schmidt, and Wambach hit a crossbar. A repeat of the 2011 World Cup final – a match decided on penalty kicks – seemed inevitable. But Alex Morgan, the American forward who seemingly never stops running, at last found herself in just the right spot.
Typically an artist in front of the net, this winner was more of the gritted-teeth variety. "I just jumped and hoped for the best," she said.
The result could hardly have been better, because more than Americans or Canadians, frankly, the women's game was the winner Monday.