MANCHESTER, England – They fought for 128 minutes, stoppage time included, and fight isn't just some word here. The American and Canadian women's soccer teams clawed and pulled and kicked and battled, ferocious and physical, back and forth, just perfect for a now-heated rivalry with a shot at women's soccer gold on the line.
Canada led three times. The United States caught up three times. And now it was in the final 30 seconds of stoppage time of the final overtime period, tie game and a ball flying from the foot of American Heather O'Reilly toward the front of the Canadian net.
Up went Alex Morgan, the USA forward, toward a ball she simply decided she had to have, as if life depended on it.
"I just tried to get my head on it," Morgan would say later.
Which she did, just enough of it anyway, to redirect it over Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod and into the back of the net. In the history of American women's soccer, this was the latest goal ever scored. Just seconds remained after Morgan's header, but those hardly mattered. The U.S. had a 4-3 semifinal victory and a date Thursday against Japan in the gold-medal match.
"I can't recall ever feeling this way after scoring a goal," said Morgan, who after the final whistle blew wound up on the bottom of a pig pile where teammate Abby Wambach expressed her gratitude for the game-saving goal and Morgan wondered if, for the first time ever, she might just start crying on a soccer field.
(Later she would.)
"Moments like this are what make sports so cool," Wambach said.
Cool isn't how the Canadians saw it. They'd played their hearts out, attacking the Americans physically, riding a hat trick from a brilliant Christine Sinclair, standing up and trying to show their international powerhouse neighbors to the South that they too could win on the world stage – all right here in Old Trafford, where the legendary Manchester United Club calls home, dubbed years ago the "Theater of Dreams."
One dream fulfilled. One crushed.
[ Photos: U.S. defeats Canada in Olympic semifinal ]
Canada didn't see Morgan's goal as some glorious moment. They saw it as the result of crooked refereeing, courtesy of Norway's Christiana Pedersen, who they believed delivered call after call to the chosen team of the Olympics.
The Americans. The golden girls. The ones the establishment always favors.
"We feel like we didn't lose," Sinclair said. "We feel like it was taken from us. It's a shame in a game like that, which is so important that the ref decided the result before the game started."
The Canadians will list off a million indignities in building their case for predetermined match fixing, but their chief complaint came in the 80th minute. They held a 3-2 lead. They were 10 minutes from a shocking upset – from achieving what they worked toward all these years, beating the United States.
McLeod, the goalkeeper, dove to the ground to get the ball. It took a couple seconds to get up and then she held the ball for a few more seconds. Out of nowhere came a whistle for delay of game. The goalkeeper can only hold a ball for six seconds.
McLeod was stunned. She didn't believe she was purposely delaying the game and hadn't been directly warned by Pedersen. Even American keeper Hope Solo said a warning is commonplace. There had simply been a general warning from a linesman at halftime, McLeod said.
"The referee said I had the ball for 10 seconds," McLeod said. "She, obviously counted the time when I was on the ground with the ball. Once I got to my feet, I calculated I only had the ball five seconds."
The Canadians went nuts, seeking an explanation.
"[Pedersen] actually giggled and said nothing," Sinclair said with anger. "Classy."
The Americans were awarded an indirect kick inside the Canadian box. They blasted it at the net and it resulted in a somewhat inadvertent handball. The U.S. was awarded a penalty kick.
"Very harsh," McLeod called that decision.
Wambach stepped up, put it in a corner and the United States had come back for a third time. They had life again. Eventually Morgan would win it, out-leaping an exhausted Canadian defense that had expended everything holding off a more talented opponent. It was a final moment Canada believed never should've occurred, although there were no guarantees the U.S. wouldn't have scored a different way in the final 10 minutes of regulation.
"We feel like we got robbed in this game," McLeod said. "We outplayed the Americans for the entire game."
The Americans saw it differently – completely differently – and this is where the war of words got as nasty as the scrums in front of the net. The U.S. players claimed the Canadians resorted to overly physical play because they lack skill and weren't in the same physical condition.
"I don't think they were a fit as we were," Morgan said. "I saw them on the ground more. … [My goal] was the last second of the game, it was about who is the fittest, who is the strongest, and we showed that."
Wambach brushed off complaints about the ref as a loser's lament and said it was in line with the relentless talking Canadian coach John Herdman did in the build-up to the game about how the Americans use "illegal tactics" such as setting picks on set plays.
"I feel like you can't blame something on a referee," Wambach said.
Oh, and there was even more. Sinclair scored three times, a near one-woman offense show. The final were two headers. She was brilliant. Correct?
"We made her look good," Solo said. "We didn't win those air battles."
On and on it went, no one giving a quarter or a compliment. The postgame media mixed zone was a reflection of how the game was played, a fresh new rivalry for the Americans, backyard variety now.
And for all the knockdowns and drag outs, there was sensational offensive play. In one second-half stretch, five goals were scored in 25 minutes, each team alternating in this frenetic fight, Sinclair and the USA's Megan Rapinoe taking turns topping each other. A crowd of about 25,000, many locals used to seeing the greatness of Wayne Rooney and David Beckham in this stadium, roared as the play grew in intensity.
"They scored and we scored and you could see the rivalry," Morgan said. "They wanted it and we wanted it."
Across two hours of chippy action and deflating moments and everyone screaming at the ref, Morgan kept trying to maintain her poise by going back to a pregame conversation with her coach, Pia Sundhage.
They stood on this historic pitch and looked around and Pia kept repeating the same thing.
"She said, 'Remember one thing, promise yourself one thing: Remember this moment,' " Morgan recalled.
So there was that final ball, that final cross, sailing through the air. This game was a fight. Heated. Angry. High stakes. The Americans were desperate for a 2011 World Cup rematch with Japan. Now here was a pesky Canadian team that wouldn't go away.
With penalty kicks looming, a golden dream hanging in the balance, there came that one last floating cross.
Alex Morgan wanted it the very most.
"I just wanted to beat Canada so bad."
Alex Morgan won't have any trouble remembering a moment that Canada may never be able to forget.
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