If you were looking for a match to raise the profile of women's football in Europe, this it. Canada against the United States in the semifinals of the 2012 Olympic games? That was always going to be tasty, and when that rivalry gets combined with a thoroughly entertaining, dramatic and combative match, from which the USWNT eventually emerged the winners, it's hard not to feel some affection for competition.
The first half was, in comparison to the second, fairly quiet. The USA dominated the early exchanges, although not to the level that they would have liked, but Canada took a surprising lead in the 22nd minute when Melissa Tancredi fed Christine Sinclar in the US box. Sinclair jinked past Christie Rampone and blasted the opener in at Hope Solo's near post. It was the first goal Solo had allowed in more than six hours of football.
After falling behind, the USWNT stepped up several gears, really stretching the Canadian defence, and although Erin McLoed was never really tested before the break there were a couple of close calls after headers from Abby Wambach and the impressive Alex Morgan. Goals were coming, but it took until the second half for them to arrive.
The US kept up their fast and furious pace after the interval, pushing Canada well back into their own half and keeping them on the back foot. But the inevitable goal still came as a complete surprise, because it ended up going in straight from a Megan Rapinoe corner:
That's a pretty embarrassing goal for Canada to concede, and with the mood that Rapinoe was in it probably wasn't an accident -- the defence left a gaping hole at the near post, and the winger picked it out perfectly.
But Rapinoe wasn't the only player on top form. Christine Sinclair had already scored a goal and ensured that the match didn't remain level for long, rising over the USA defence on a very high cross to power in a header off Solo's right post to make it 2-1 thirteen minutes after Rapinoe's equaliser.
And then Rapinoe did it again, taking down a cross-field pass near the edge of the penalty box before rifling home a shot that left McLeod totally helpless before bouncing off the post and barely over the line. Less than three minutes had elapsed between Sinclair pulling Canada ahead (again) and Rapinoe equalising. We wouldn't wait long until the next goal either, as Sinclair completed her hattrick with another header in the 73rd minute, beating Solo with a header that was a virtual carbon copy of her second goal.
Then things got... odd. You never see the six-second rule for goalkeepers, which is intended to prevent time-wasting, enforced. Ever. It was here, with the USA earning an indirect free kick in the 79th minute after Erin McLeod apparently held on to the ball for too long. From that free kick, the USA then earned a penalty when Rapinoe blasted a shot against Marie-Eve Nault's arm, which was covering her face. It's not entirely clear whether the free kick call or the penalty were correct, but that was hardly Wambach's concern, and the 32-year-old crashed her spot kick off the woodworkand in to make it 3-3.
Wambach had a chance to win the game for the US shortly thereafter when Alex Morgan ripped open the Canada defence and sent in a cross which took McLeod completely out of the picture only for the striker to volley well wide at the far post. Canada had their chances towards the end of the game as well -- Sophie Schmidt should probably have done better with a last-minute header that ended up directed straight at Solo.
After ninety minutes there was nothing to separate the two sides, and the match went to a thirty minutes of extra time which could probably be best described as 'exhausted'. The chances had dried up somewhat, with both sides using most of their energy in the second period, but Wambach should have done better when she managed to wriggle clear for a free header in the box, managing only a tame header to McLeod's left.
By the halfway point of the second half, Canada were running on fumes and the US were enjoying the vast majority of possession. But they couldn't break through a well-organised defence, and the game continued its seemingly inexorable march towards a penalty shootout. Heather O'Reilly managed to provide a moment of interest by wiping out Desiree Scott in the centre circle, somehow managing to avoid being called for a foul despite hyperextending the Canadian midfielder's knee and leaving her in a heap on the ground. The stretcher was called out, but, incredibly, Scott sent it away and staggered to her feet, playing on despite the obvious pain.
Canada were very nearly punished in the final minute of extra time after the ball squirted out to Morgan on the left. As she'd done all match, Morgan punched her way through the defence and then sent in a cross for Wambach. The resulting header looked lazy, but it was nearly perfectly placed, forcing McLeod into a backwards scramble before the goalkeeper's fingertips helped the shot onto the crossbar.
And then, finally, their resolve broke. Alex Morgan deserved a goal for her phenomenal efforts, and she got one right at the death. There was virtually no time left in the match when O'Reilly swung in a cross, and Morgan rose over a phalanx of white shirts to plant a header past McLeod. That dramatic goal made it 4-3 with what was essentially the last action of the game. It was high drama, and it was enough to put the USA into the final against Japan, a rematch of Japan's win in the 2011 World Cup.
Sports are pretty great, eh?