“Job one is done for us, the changing the colour of the medal. But now that we're in the final, you go for it."
For the members of the Canadian national women’s soccer team, there is of course a literal answer to this question: After having finally defeated the United States for the first time in more than 20 years, and only the fourth time in history against 51 losses, they will play Sweden for the gold medal.
As for what they will do in a more figurative sense, how they will respond while coming down the other side of an unpassable mountain, that one is more difficult to answer. Will they play free and easy, having already ensured that they will upgrade the colour of their Olympic medals from the bronze won in London and Rio? Will they be tense and tight, knowing that a game against Sweden, fifth in the FIFA rankings, is about as good a shot at gold as they are ever likely to get? Both scenarios are entirely plausible.
Let’s start with the practical stuff. Canada has made its first Olympic final — and first such final in any Summer Olympic team sport since before the Great Depression — on the back of a stingy defence. They conceded just three goals in three group matches, and then none through 120-plus minutes against Brazil and 90-plus minutes against the United States. This wasn’t entirely achieved by sitting back in a defensive shell, either, with the Canadians carrying the play for much of the Brazil match and a good chunk of the first half against the United States.
But when they had to absorb pressure, they did. The Americans surged after halftime of their semi-final, bringing big guns like Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd on as substitutes, and for a time the Canadians were reeling. At one point in the near-empty Ibaraki Kashima Stadium someone on the American benches yelled “It’s COMING,” referring to a goal, and it could be heard up in the press area on the second deck. Given what was happening on the field, it was a decent line of argument.
“We knew they were going to come at us at some point in the game, they always do, against every team,” she said, but added that her teammates limited the high-danger chances. “I mean, they can fire in crosses from 40 yards all they want,” she said. The spine of the Canadian defence, goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé and defenders Kadeisha Buchanan and Vanessa Gilles, remained stout, even under withering pressure and with the Americans holding an 11-1 shot advantage before a penalty kick turned the game in Canada’s favour.“We trust our centre backs, our goalkeeper, I mean they were machines tonight,” Sinclair said after the game.
The other side of Canada’s impressive defensive-minded approach is that they have not exactly been lighting up the scoresheet themselves. They scored four times in group matches and had zero goals from open play in the two knockout games, winning the spot-kick shootout against Brazil and getting a penalty conversion from Jessie Fleming against the United States. But that style of play is often what it takes to win big tournaments: keep the opponents’ good chances to a minimum and try to capitalize on your own. If it could work against Brazil and especially against the mighty U.S. program, it could work against Sweden.
There is also this: A high-stakes football match at this level will almost always come down to the thinnest of margins. Canada won the bronze at London 2012 with an injury-time goal against France that was its only shot on target of the match. There were three goals in the bronze-medal match in Rio, but again Canada won on just a one-goal margin. All the strategy, all the prep, all of this plan or that tactical switch can come undone by a deflection or a jump ball or the referee’s whistle. The winner over the United States on Monday was just such a bolt from the sky: A long ball from Labbé, a header down the right flank, and a collision between defender and winger that went unpunished but for the intervention of the video assistant referee.
The Miracle on Grass, as it were. And not unlike 1984 in Lake Placid, when the plucky Americans had defeated the Big Red Machine on ice, the win came with one game left. The U.S. still had to beat Finland to win the gold. The late coach Herb Brooks, as the story goes, told a trailing U.S. team at the second intermission that if they failed to win after vanquishing the Soviets, they would take the loss “to their (expletive) graves.” They came back to win.
The final wild-card for the gold-medal matchup is the weather. The game was scheduled for 11 a.m. local time at Olympic Stadium, in what would be brutal, punishing heat. But the two teams successfully petitioned the organizers to move the game to 9 p.m. local time (8 p.m. ET).