If their not-so-friendly with Canada on Thursday night was supposed to be a test for the United States women’s national team, the 1-1 outcome might well constitute a failing grade. Playing a budding rival at one of the venues where next year’s Canadian-based Women’s World Cup will be held, in front of a rapt 28,000+ crowd, was a rare opportunity to truly measure themselves. But a 36th-minute Kadeisha Buchanan goal and a 78th-minute equalizer by the Canadian-born Sydney Leroux ensured a stalemate.
The Americans very nearly lost Canada for the first time in 30 games. And even the draw will feel like a real setback, as it underscored a slew of issues weighing the United States down of late. And this isn’t a good time to be sorting out major issues, as the countdown clock to October’s World Cup qualifiers in Mexico signals just five remaining months.
Certainly, the USA were without star striker Alex Morgan and defensive stalwart Rachel Van Hollebeke. Creative midfielders Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe were also absent. And the Americans badly missed them, failing to ply their forwards with the ample buffet of chances they usually feast on. But Canada’s moral victory — and it was more that than a salvaged game for the Americans — was hardly a fluke or some kind of result snagged against the run of play.
Canada’s boy wonder coach John Herdman had brazenly fielded a glorified youth team backline, consisting of two 18-year-olds and an 11th-grader who is just 17. But they held their own against America’s corps of fancy forwards. Kadeisha Buchanan, all of 18, was unafraid to match the world record goal scorer Abby Wambach in her physicality — clattering through her a handful of times early on — and helped to negate the aerial attack.
Their central diamond, meanwhile, kept the USA’s midfield trio from getting into a rhythm by cluttering and clogging the channels. But in spite of playing in a 4-3-3 that ought to allow the lady Yanks to cut inside from out wide, they mustered next to no offense in the first half. A lone Lauren Holiday shot to the near post that was well saved by Erin McLeod was all.
At the other end, Canada weren’t afraid of counter-punching, running off with gusto when given the chance. One such play earned them a corner in the 36th minute. Buchanan rose high on the delivery, well above Ali Krieger, and nodded her header to the far post. Nobody was stationed there, meaning goalkeeper Hope Solo had no chance of scurrying over. If the Canadians seemed shocked to be ahead, they needn’t be. In fact, in the 43rd minute, Diana Matheson’s cross-cum-shot seemed to catch Solo off guard, nearly floating over her and into the nets but pinging off the cross bar instead.
The American ball movement was improved in the second half. A real chance was fashioned for Wambach in the 52nd minute, when Holiday’s long free kick soared over everybody. But Wambach headed it back across goal, rather than going for the tight angle, and Erin McLeod, who seemed beaten, recovered.
A short while later, Carli Lloyd rampaged into the box and squared for Heather O’Reilly, but she was closed down well and somehow allowed her finish to trickle just wide. At length, Leroux equalized, once again dumping salt in the still-gaping wound of her choice to represent the United States over the home team. Rebecca Quinn, the other 18-year-old in defense, failed to head a long cross away properly and it fell to Leroux, who pounced without mercy.
Christie Sinclair slid a shot inches wide on the very next play, wasting an opportunity to put Canada back ahead. Christen Press shanked an injury-time look for the USA. And so Canada held on for a well-deserved tie.
Free of context, this outcome might not seem like more than a bad day at the office for the Americans. But this was their fourth failure to win in seven games, after they went all of 2013 without dropping a match. Head coach Tom Sermanni was fired a month ago, and his interim replacement Jill Ellis hopes to take on the job full-time. This result may have made her candidacy a tad shakier.
Yet again, the Americans had the utmost trouble breaking down a well-organized defense. Shifting to a formation with an extra attacker yielded no dividends, and the loss of personnel in midfield was felt acutely once more.
Canada, for their part, fell just short of avenging a controversial extra-time loss to the USA in the 2012 Olympic semifinals. But Herdman’s team, and all those observers in Winnipeg on the night, will take immense comfort in knowing that Canada isn’t all that far off that long-awaited win over the Americans anymore. And that while the American crisis endures, their prospects look promising.