Canada to play for gold in women's soccer after beating U.S.

Amid the celebratory din after a long-awaited win over the United States, Canadian captain Christine Sinclair sat down on the pitch at Ibaraki Kashima Stadium and took a moment to absorb the scene.

There was plenty to think about.

Jessie Fleming's confident goal from the penalty spot in the 1-0 victory. Avenging a controversial semifinal loss to the U.S. at the 2012 Games. And finally, after serving as a team anchor for most of her career, a long-awaited shot at Olympic women's soccer gold.

"Back-to-back bronzes, we were kind of sick of that," Sinclair said. "And this team, I mean, wow, what a performance, what a fight. Just so proud of our team, and one more to go."

After third-place finishes in London and at the 2016 Games in Rio, the team has preached that its goal this time around was to change the colour of the medal.

Mission accomplished on that front. Now it's just of matter of whether gold or silver will be next.

Fleming scored in the 74th minute and the Canadians withstood some late pressure by the top-ranked Americans to book their first-ever appearance in an Olympic final.

Eighth-ranked Canada will play No. 5 Sweden for the gold on Friday at the Olympic Stadium. Sweden edged No. 9 Australia in Monday's late semifinal at Yokohama Stadium.

"I'm clear that winners win and we're going into this final to absolutely get a gold medal," Canada coach Bev Priestman said.

The Americans will play Australia for bronze on Thursday.

On a hot, muggy evening in a venue about a two-hour drive from Tokyo, the U.S. appeared to take control after a tepid opening half.

However, Canada was able to strike first after American defender Tierna Davidson was called for a foul when her left foot hit Deanne Rose's leg just inside the penalty area as they chased a loose ball.

Ukrainian referee Kateryna Monzul pointed to the penalty spot after a VAR review.

Sinclair scooped up the ball -- to keep it "in a Canadian hand," Fleming said -- before the 23-year-old midfielder set it down on the spot. Fleming, who decided a night earlier where she would kick it if she had this opportunity, made no mistake.

American goalkeeper Adrianna Franch dived to the correct side but couldn't get a piece of the powerful shot, perfectly placed inside the post.

"I took a deep breath and did what I've done before," Fleming said.

Sinclair had a hat trick in the last Olympic meeting between Canada and the U.S. in 2012, a memorable 4-3 win for the Americans in extra time at Old Trafford.

"For the veterans that went through that game, for the veterans that should have won back then, we set the record straight for them," Rose said.

Now 38, Sinclair may not pull the strings for the Canadian side the way she once did, but she's still the team's heartbeat.

"There's some veterans on the team that still feel that hurt from 2012," Priestman said. "I'm just over the moon for that group of players to get that. Someone like Christine now gets to go to an Olympic final, (she's) done so much for the program."

The American side, wearing white shirts and blue shorts, was aggressive from the start Monday but couldn't test goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe in the early going.

Canada, sporting an all-red kit, took some time to settle in. About 15 minutes into the game, the Canadians started to press more often and generated some chances.

American goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher had to leave the game after injuring her knee while attempting to clear a cross by Fleming. Naeher landed awkwardly after brushing teammate Julie Ertz as the ball floated into the goalmouth.

Naeher stayed in the game for a few minutes but signalled she'd have to come out after attempting a kick with her right leg. She was replaced by Franch in the 30th minute.

The Americans seemed determined to create chances by pressuring the Canadian back line and forcing defenders to scramble. The Canadians, meanwhile, had more control of the midfield in the first half but struggled to capitalize when deeper in the zone.

Neither team had a shot on target over the first 45 minutes. The pace picked up from there as players on the sideline bellowed words of encouragement. Mixed with the artificial crowd noise piped in the speakers, it was an odd soundtrack in the virtually empty stadium.

Both teams made substitutions in the 60th minute.

Veteran Megan Rapinoe came on for the U.S. along with Carli Lloyd and Christen Press. Priestman replaced Quinn and Nichelle Prince with Julia Grosso and Rose.

Lloyd had the first decent chance of the game in the 65th minute. Her shot from just inside the area forced Labbe to leap in the air and tip the ball over the bar.

Labbe was tested again moments later when an Ertz header off a corner kick forced the netminder to make another good save. Lloyd hit the crossbar late in regulation.

"We'd limited their real chances," Sinclair said. "I mean, they can fire in crosses from 40 yards all they want. We trust our centre backs and our goalkeeper. I mean they were machines tonight."

After a few minutes of injury time had elapsed, the Canadian celebration was on.

"When the whistle blew I just dropped to my knees, put my hands in the air and just screamed in disbelief and pure joy and excitement," said midfielder Desiree Scott.

The Americans outshot Canada 13-3 and had a 4-2 edge on shots on target. The U.S. had possession 60 per cent of the time.

"At the end of the day it's a small margin to get by," Lloyd said. "They got through on a PK, and that's the game of football."

Canada improved its all-time record to 4-51-7 in head-to-head meetings with the U.S. dating back to 1986. Canada's last victory over the Americans was a 3-0 decision at the Algarve Cup in March 2001.

"We've got chapters of a book that if you keep going back over them, it'll never change," Priestman said. "We've got to write a new chapter of a book. We were there, we just had to believe we were there.

"All credit to the players. They've done everything to do that."

The Americans, who won the 2019 World Cup in France, have won gold at four of the last six Summer Olympics. The U.S. lost to Sweden in the quarterfinals at the Rio Games.

Germany, the Olympic champion in 2016, did not qualify for Tokyo.

Canada extended its overall unbeaten streak to nine matches, covering four friendlies and five games in Tokyo (4-0-5 with six clean sheets).

Labbe has shone at these Games, particularly in Canada's quarterfinal victory over Brazil. After a goalless 120-plus minutes, Labbe closed that game with back-to-back saves to help Canada win 4-3 on penalty kicks.

The Americans and Canadians both finished second in their respective pools in group play. The U.S. also needed penalties to beat the Netherlands in the quarterfinals.

"As soon as the the quarters happened and we knew that we were playing them, I talked to Desi Scott and we both said we've been waiting nine years for this chance to have this game again," Sinclair said.

"And that we're going to do everything possible for a different outcome. And we did."

All 22 players on Canada's roster (including four alternates) have dressed at some point during the competition. Defender Jayde Riviere was suspended for the semifinal due to yellow card accumulation.

Canada dropped a 1-0 decision to the U.S. when the teams last met at the SheBelieves Cup in February. It was the 303rd career cap for Sinclair, who leads all international soccer players with 187 career goals.

The Canadian women qualified for Tokyo by finishing runner-up to the U.S. at last year's CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying Championship.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 2, 2021.