Women’s soccer has come a long way

None of these girls needed to rip off her shirt, fall to her knees and scream in near-orgasmic delight to make this soccer match relevant.

We’ve come a long way since 1999, the World Cup and Brandi Chastain. We’ve come far enough that Monday night’s fabulous women’s Olympic semifinal match between Canada and the United States should stand the test of time without anyone disrobing.

If you enjoy competition, great athleticism, bite-your-nails drama and controversy, you should absolutely love and never forget the border war staged in the soccer capital of the world and inside one of its most historic venues, Old Trafford, home of Manchester United.

In the final minute of injury time, in the final session of extra (over)time, American midfielder Alex Morgan ended the most exciting women’s soccer match ever played, heading in a ball from six yards out.

USA 4, Canada 3.

The No. 1-ranked team in the world escaped Canada’s “Miracle on Grass” bid by the slimmest of margins. In a match that required 120 minutes of actual play and took more than three hours to complete, Morgan’s header was our only lead over an opponent we hadn’t lost to in 27 straight matches.

This would’ve been an upset for the ages, a soccer duplicate of our Winter Olympics Miracle on Ice. And you could certainly make a compelling argument that our friends to the north deserved the victory and the right to face Japan in Thursday’s gold medal match.

The United States forced extra time thanks to some highly questionable officiating. In about the 78th minute, Norwegian referee Christian Pedersen awarded the US an indirect free kick in Canada’s goal area because she believed goalie Erin McLeod held the ball for six seconds, a delay-of-game penalty. Pedersen then whistled the Canadians for a hand ball on the indirect kick, which set up Abby Wambach for a spot kick at the 80th minute. Wambach went one-on-one with McLeod, whipping a kick to the left post that easily got by McLeod, tying the match at 3-3.

"I’ve never seen that called without a warning,” said American goalie Hope Solo, referring to the delay-of-game penalty.

The Canadians were irate.

“We felt like we got robbed,” McLeod said. “I think the refereeing was very one-sided.”

Christine Sinclair, Canada’s amazing striker, added: “We feel like we didn’t lose. We feel like it was taken from us.”

Equally galling for the Canadians was just before Pedersen’s favorable decisions for the US, she ignored a hand ball by the Americans at the other end.

“Maybe the ref will be wearing a Canadian jersey in our next game,” Sinclair cracked.

Oh, Canada, we know your pain, the feeling of being robbed of Olympic glory by poor officiating. It’s been 40 long years since a FIBA official left his seat in the stands to assist the Soviets in a last-second hijacking of a semifinal basketball, but we’ve never forgotten.

That controversial game accelerated the spread of international basketball.

Monday night’s soccer match should accelerate the popularity of the sport.

Sinclair is absolutely breathtaking. She might be the best women’s player in the world. We couldn’t stop her. She scored all three Canadian goals, knocking in two headers and beautifully slipping by the US defense to fool Solo for the game’s first goal.

“Yeah, we made her look real good,” Solo said, accurately suggesting her defenders let her down. “We’re the better team in the air.”

Just not Monday night. Sinclair was the best player in the air. The US had far more chances to score, but we didn’t have anyone as skilled as Sinclair, the seven-time Canadian player of the year.

What we lacked in skill we made up for with resiliency. We answered every Canadian goal with one of our own. We were down often but never for long. Midfielder Megan Rapinoe matched Sinclair’s first two goals, bending a corner kick into the net and jamming an outside bomb for another goal.

Once we tied it up on Wambach’s gift, the match turned into a Rocky Balboa-Apollo Creed slugfest. There was a series of brutal tackles that left players on both teams on the ground writhing in pain. The Canadians appeared exhausted. They never mounted a serious challenge in the two 15-minute extra sessions. They appeared content to hold on and play for the penalty-kick ending.

Alex Morgan’s blast ended that dream.

“We outplayed them the whole game,” McLeod grumbled. “It’s the first time we ever did that.”

That’s not true. Canada, thanks to Sinclair, outscored the US for most of the game. The game was always close, always entertaining, always on the verge of a dramatic turn.

It’s the best advertisement for women’s soccer we’ve ever seen.