Soccer·Analysis

With a single kick, Jessie Fleming ended 20 years of U.S. women's soccer dominance over Canada

Why is this the biggest win in the history of the Canadian women's soccer team? Consider this: The Americans had been unbeaten in 37 matches against Canada and 51-3-7 all time against their neighbours since their first meeting in 1986. The rivalry resembled the Harlem Globetrotters vs. the Washington Generals.

Unsung heroes at Tokyo 2020 step up to snap Canada's 37-game losing streak to rivals

United States goalkeeper Adrianna Franch fails to stop a penalty from Canada's Jessie Fleming, right. The London, Ont., native's goal was the only one in the Olympic women's semifinal Monday at Kashima Stadium in Japan. Canada will face Sweden in the gold-medal game Friday. (Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

It was a victory more than 20 years in the making.

Canada will change the colour of the medal after upsetting the United States 1-0 in the semifinals of the women's tournament at Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Monday at Kashima Stadium. After winning back-to-back bronze medals, the Canadians will go for gold when they play Sweden Friday (10 p.m. ET Thursday in Canada).

Jessie Fleming scored from the penalty spot in the 74th minute to help Canada earn its first win over the U.S. since  registering a 3-0 decision on March 11, 2001, at the Algarve Cup.

Why is this the biggest win in the Canadian's team history? Consider this: The Americans were unbeaten in 37 matches against Canada and 51-3-7 all time against their neighbours dating back to their first meeting in 1986. FC Barcelona vs. Real Madrid this rivalry ain't. Instead, it has resembled the Harlem Globetrotters vs. the Washington Generals.

Aside from setting up a gold-medal showdown with the Swedes, the win saw the Canadians exorcise the ghosts of their epic semifinal against the Americans at London 2012 when they suffered a controversial 4-3 loss in extra time.

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A redemption story 9 years in the making, Canada to play for Olympic women's soccer gold

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The Canadian women's national team defeated the United States for the first time in 20 years, pushing their way through the Olympic semifinals and into the gold-medal match. 1:52

We'll never know for sure if it was a genuine moment of clairvoyance from Canadian coach Bev Priestman or her just laying down a challenge for her players when she declared during Sunday's pre-game media conference that "when we are in big moments, big players step up."

Roughly 24 hours later, Canada's unsung heroes stepped up in the biggest way possible, in the biggest moment of their careers — none more so than Fleming.

The diminutive midfielder has carried a huge weight on her shoulders since making her national team debut as a 15-year-old on Dec. 15, 2013, in a game against China. Since then, the London, Ont., nataive has earned 89 caps, scoring 11 goals along the way, in firmly establishing herself as a starter for Canada.

She's long been viewed as the lynchpin of Canada's next generation of young players, the one who will lead the team once captain Christine Sinclair finally retires. But Fleming, who plays her club soccer with English side Chelsea, has flattered to deceive, failing to live up to the hype and expectations. In recent years, as Canada has struggled to create, she has shouldered a large portion of the blame.

'Huge moment'

So, can you just imagine for a moment what it must've felt like for Fleming to take the ball from Sinclair and be given the ultimate responsibility by Canada's iconic captain, and then convert her penalty attempt with the game precariously teetering in the balance, by firing a powerful shot to the left of diving American goalkeeper Adrianna French that nestled majestically inside the post?

No big deal, said Fleming. It's just what big players do in big moments.

"For me, I was just trusting myself in that moment to put it in the [right] spot. I knew I could do it… I took a deep breath and did what I've done before," Fleming said in the post-match news conference with reporters.

WATCH | Jessie Fleming scores on penalty kick to lift Canada: 

Jessie Fleming's penalty lifts Canada over U.S. in women's soccer semifinal

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Midfielder Jessie Fleming scores on a penalty in the seventy-fifth minute as Canada defeats U.S. 1-0 and advances to the women's soccer gold medal match. 1:28

Clare Rustad, an Olympian and former Canadian team defender, felt Fleming had her best game of the tournament against the No. 1-ranked Americans.

"She is the link they need between the defence and the front three, and the more she is involved, the more they will be able to pull central defenders out of position and attack the space in behind. Her penalty was excellent: composed, technically perfect. Huge moment for her," Rustad told CBC Sports.

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The 23-year-old Canadian soccer player discusses her approach to the game-winning penalty kick she converted in Canada's 1-0 win over the United States. 1:14

That was the biggest moment of Monday's match, but there were plenty of others. With the game lagging early in the second half, the U.S. brought on their heavy hitters by making a triple substitution of Carli Lloyd, Christen Press and Megan Rapinoe, a move that immediately sparked their attack into life.

The first shot on target of the match soon followed, when Rose Lavelle fed Lindsey Horan, who had a clear path toward goal and unleashed a dangerous shot from just inside the box. But Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé was equal to the task, tipping it over the crossbar. Moments later, Labbé made another sharp save at the near post on Julie Ertz's header off a corner kick, again pushing it over the crossbar.

Fullback Ashley Lawrence put in another great shift, helping to anchor a back line that recorded a clean sheet against an American side teeming with talented goal scorers, and bombing forward down the flanks to provide width to Canada's probing attack. Lawrence has played 440 of a possible 450 minutes in Tokyo, and Monday marked her 100th cap for Canada — both signs of just how important she is to her country.

"Globally, she's undervalued. I said that to her from the minute I got the job. [She's] one of the best fullbacks in the world," Priestman offered.

WATCH | Canadian women's soccer team advances to Olympic final: 

Match Highlights: Canadian women's soccer team advances to Olympic final

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Canadian women's soccer team defeats the number-one ranked United States 1-0 in their semifinal at Tokyo 2020. 1:55

The scouting report on Canada ahead of Tokyo was that if the team was going to go far, it would be on the strength of its defence. Over the last 18 months, Kadeisha Buchanan and Shelina Zadorsky, who both play for top clubs in Europe, have formed an effective partnership in central defence for Canada.

But it has been Vanessa Gilles, who only made her national team debut in 2019 after years of being overlooked, who has been Canada's defensive quarterback in Japan. After sitting out the first two games, she replaced Zadorsky in the group stage finale and has held onto the starting role ever since.

Gilles only had six caps coming into this tournament, but she's played with a maturity and poise beyond her 25 years of age and her lack of international experience. Known as The Magnet, she lived up to her nickname with a player-of-the-match effort against the Americans, recording 19 defensive clearances — six more than the entire U.S. team.

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Watch CBC Sports' The Olympians feature, on Women's Soccer. 6:02

"It was such an experienced performance from a relatively inexperienced player. She kept her feet, remained patient and was excellent in the air. She made it impossible for the Americans to break through. Such a strong outing for her and she has truly solidified her position as a starter for Canada," Rustad said.

The longstanding criticism of this Canadian team has been it relies far too heavily on Sinclair, not just for goals, but also for inspiration. As Sinclair goes, so goes Canada. 

But Canada's unsung heroes have stepped up in big moments in Tokyo, and this team has proved to be much greater than just the sum of its parts.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for a number of media outlets, including CBC Sports, Sportsnet and Sun Media. During his time at CBC Sports, John travelled to South Africa to cover the 2010 FIFA World Cup for CBCSports.ca. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of the Canadian game.

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