The USWNT Survived Some All-Time CONCACAF Madness

After the USWNT’s lifeless loss to Mexico in the Gold Cup group stage, the immediate demand was for better results, yes, but also for the team to start playing something resembling coherent soccer. The alarming thing about that loss wasn’t so much the result as the thoroughness with which the USWNT was outplayed: Sometimes you lose 2-0 for no good reason, and sometimes you get totally styled on. They really showed something against Colombia, but the true test would be in the semifinal against blood rival Canada. Could they string together some passes against CONCACAF’s other heavyweight?

No, because the game took place inside an aquarium. When CONCACAF officials booked the semi in San Diego, they probably expected beautiful weather, or at least something better than the hilariously dangerous conditions that the USWNT and Canada had to slog through on Wednesday. It was stupid, delirious soccer, and for all the worry about whether the U.S. could evolve, it was totally impossible to pass the ball. For one glorious night the USWNT’s job was to go back to Tha Old Me, and they won a ludicrous marathon of a match through sheer force of endurance, goalkeeping, and pain tolerance.

To the USWNT’s credit, they were trying stuff and getting lively early on, though anytime anyone tried to play a pass, the ball would hit the turf and instantly die. “It’s obvious that the game was unplayable,” Canada coach Bev Priestman said. “We put in a lot of work in a game plan and within minute one, it’s thrown out the window.” To me, the enduring highlight of the match is Trinity Rodman getting the ball on the break and dribbling into space, only for a puddle to bring the ball to a perfect standstill.

The game probably should have been suspended, though play carried on, and the opening goal was 100-percent a result of the sloppy conditions. In the 20th minute, Vanessa Gilles played a back-pass to her keeper, only for the ball to, again, come to a complete halt. Jaedyn Shaw then ran onto it and slammed it past her San Diego Wave teammate Kailen Sheridan. The field became slightly less adversarial in the second half, and Canada knotted it up in the 82nd, when Jordyn Huitema rose up over Emily Fox and headed a nice cross in past Alyssa Naeher. Eight minutes into extra time, U.S. subs Rose Lavelle and Sophia Smith collaborated on a goal that should have been the game-winner—though for a classically CONCACAF banger of this magnitude to reach its full potential, the stupidity had to transcend the dangerous playing conditions. There had to be a human element.

It couldn’t end without an officiating controversy, and right at the end of extra time, we got one. Gilles and Naeher bonked into each other in the U.S. box in stoppage time, and after an agonizing VAR session, the referee pointed to the spot. For my money, this is not quite a penalty, though it made some grim cosmic sense that Canada would be awarded one; in any case Adriana Leon coolly delivered. If the USWNT was going to win, they would have to overcome the maximum possible amount of pain. They would need a Pulisician hero moment.

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That hero would turn out to be Naeher. Not only did she save three of the four penalties she faced in the ensuing shootout, Naeher stepped up third for the USWNT and blasted her penalty into the far corner. Sheridan even guessed right, yet Naeher smoked it past her. The mental strength to stand tall in goal after giving away a heartbreaking penalty that late is so impressive, and to step up and nail a penalty is even cooler.

I don’t like that the U.S. got all tired and ragged and had to go to hell and back to beat Canada, while Brazil breezed past Mexico in the other semifinal, but it feels significant that the USWNT destroyed their rivals in such a heinous game. It matters, I think, to be tested in this way and come through. The game on Wednesday was less about the U.S. players’ soccer skills and more about their physical and mental fortitude. It took everything, and they triumphed. Brazil is legit—Yasmim scored an incredible goal yesterday—and for the first time, the U.S. is in actual danger of losing a CONCACAF tournament, especially because they had to give so much to beat Canada. But to me, the era-defining casual dominance that produced that spotless record is already over, regardless of what happens against Brazil. The target this year is the Olympics, and I think there are long-term benefits to team cohesion and belief to winning a nutty game like this one.

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