It would have been easy for the Canadian women's soccer team to leave these Olympics without a medal. Their controversial 4-3 semifinal loss to the U.S. in the last seconds of extra time Monday and the subsequent FIFA investigation, criticism from Americans, complaints from Canadian columnists and other drama could have added to the already-high difficulty level of a bronze-medal match against higher-ranked France, and for much of Thursday's clash, it looked like the Canadians wouldn't hit coach John Herdman's goal of a podium finish. However, Diana Matheson's late goal gave Canada a 1-0 victory, and that goal allowed this Canadian team to exit the Olympics with a tremendous achievement, not just the feeling of coming tantalizingly close to one.
Playing the top-ranked Americans as close as Canada did Monday is a massive accomplishment in its own right, of course, but in terms of victories, it's mostly a moral one. It's also not a unique occurrence; Canada came tantalizingly close against the U.S. in the quarterfinals of the Beijing Olympics before losing 2-1 in extra time, and the Canadians also lost to the Americans on a late goal in a June tuneup. Neither was quite as close as Monday's semifinal, of course, and neither received as much attention across Canada, but we've known for some time that this team can occasionally step up and keep things very close against their southern neighbours. What we haven't seen is this kind of finish in a major tournament; Canada didn't make it to the knockout stage at either the 2007 or 2011 Women's World Cup and didn't make it to the semifinals in Beijing, and the Canadian women hadn't beaten a higher-ranked squad like France in a major international tournament since 2003. There were struggles Thursday, to be sure, but the end result was an incredible step forward for the Canadian women's program, and one that suggests keeping things close against the U.S. Monday wasn't a fluke.
What this really marks redemption for is that 2011 Women's World Cup showing, though. Canada entered that tournament with the chances of being a strong contender and started with a memorable moment thanks to superstar Christine Sinclair battling through a broken nose to notch a superb goal against defending champions and home side Germany, but the Canadians were then obliterated 4-0 by France and suffered a shocking 1-0 loss to Nigeria, finishing the tournament without a point. That led to the exit of coach Carolina Morace, but it also raised larger questions about the state of Canadian women's soccer. This Olympic medal-winning performance under new head coach John Herdman, the first Canada's recorded in a traditional team sport since 1936, answers many of those questions. That the medal came thanks to a win over the French and that it came after such a devastating loss makes it even sweeter. In just over a year, the Canadian women's program has gone from a team in crisis to one that can compete with anyone in the world and find significant international success. That's a remarkable turnaround.