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USA-Canada will live up to hype

The USA will take on Canada this Friday in the first match of 2014.
The USA will take on Canada this Friday in the first match of 2014.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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Sometimes friendly games don’t live up to their name. Don’t expect the one on Friday to, when the United States women’s national team takes on Canada (live, Friday, FOX Sports 1, 9 p.m. ET). Because the last few times around, things were tense.

Historically, the Americans have towered over their northern neighbors. A 46-3-5 record hardly leaves room for debate on that front. But one game changed the equation. Their Olympic semifinal on Aug. 6, 2012 could well be one of the greatest women’s soccer games of all-time.

As ever, the USA was expected to claim an easy victory, having little but Canada’s star forward Christine Sinclair to worry about. Sinclair put Canada ahead three times, however, dicing up the American box once and scoring on two marvelous headers -- one off the inside of the post and one into the top corner. Each time, the USA counter-punched. Megan Rapinoe scored a rare olimpico, a direct score from a corner that took a wicked swerve to beat the Canadian defense at the near post. And she bagged a second goal with a long shot, also off the inside of the post.

The third equalizer was controversial. In the 80th minute, Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod was the victim of an ultra-rare call for dawdling with the ball in her hands and penalized with an indirect free kick. Rapinoe took the shot and smashed it into the Canadian wall, where it collided with the arm of Marie-Eve Nault. A penalty was called -- a second dubious decision by referee Christiana Pedersen. Abby Wambach converted with yet another shot off the inside of the post.

Wambach missed a chance to put the game away in the 85th minute in front of an open goal, sending the game to extra time. She would also nod a header off the crossbar in the 119th minute. At length, in the 123rd minute, Alex Morgan looped a header over McLeod for the winner.

The USA were in their fifth consecutive Olympic gold medal game, which they would win. Canada understandably felt aggrieved. And a fierce regional rivalry was born.

“That game was just amazing and incredible in so many different ways,” Rapinoe tells FOX Soccer. “It was two teams playing at their best on the biggest stage. I think it built a whole new hype that wasn’t there before. Canada have made tremendous strides and have become not just our neighbors to the north but such a formidable team and a real challenge every time we play them.”

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The next time they did face off, in Toronto on June 2, 2013, the Americans returned home with a 3-0 win. But that score-line belied a tight affair that was goalless until the 70th minute -- thereafter, Morgan scored twice and the, ahem, Canadian-born and raised Sydney Leroux once, in the 93rd minute.

Suddenly, the Americans sensed that there was no longer any awe emanating from the Canadians. “I think from their side, coming so close [at the Olympics] -- and I don’t think they had come that close to beating us in a long time -- to know that if they bring their A-game they’re right there with us gives them that extra boost,” says Rapinoe.

And that offers the USA a precious opportunity amidst the three-year competitive layoff between the Olympics and the Women’s World Cup in Canada in 2015. This game will be the rare, real test. The women have played an endless series of friendlies since winning their gold medal, but they have often been tepid affairs against vastly inferior opposition.

The 20,500-capacity Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas will be sold out and the opposition hungry and unafraid. And there is immense value in the danger this game poses to the record 77-game unbeaten streak on American soil.

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Since succeeding Pia Sundhage as head coach following the London Games, Tom Sermanni has shaken up a hierarchy within the team that had long since ossified. He has called in 44 different players and handed 10 their debut in 2013 alone. Eight players on his 24-woman roster for this game have 10 caps or fewer. And of the 18 players on the Olympic team, only 11 were called up for Friday’s affair. In some cases, like for Morgan and Tobin Heath, that’s because of injury; in others they are Sermanni’s choices. But by injecting fresh faces and competition for places, however, he also surrendered a good deal of experience.

“For a lot of the new players on the team they haven’t played in an atmosphere like this,” says Rapinoe. “A really heated, kind of historic rivalry between the teams definitely simulates a lot more [than other friendlies].”

This, then, is a litmus test for a rejuvenated team desperately short on them. “It is a big game for a lot of people,” Rapinoe says. “This might be their 90 minutes to showcase what they have or to impress Tom and try to sort of make a name for themselves and carve out a spot on the team.”

Because few opponents will be as hell-bent on revenge as Canada.

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