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U.S. women’s soccer team loses to Canada in semifinals, ending bid for Olympic gold

Jessie Fleming celebrates after giving Canada a lead late in Monday's semifinal. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
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KASHIMA, Japan — International soccer’s career leading scorer, the woman who endured 20 years of disappointment against the United States but never let it destroy her belief, had a sneaking feeling about Monday night at Ibaraki Kashima Stadium.

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The Americans had looked out of sorts all tournament. They had just scraped by in a challenging group stage rather than blasting through it like usual. They required a shootout to advance past a quarterfinal with the Netherlands, and needed goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher to play hero. And by Monday night, they had not righted themselves, still appearing so stagnant and disordered that not even a trio of supernova veterans subbing in with 30 minutes left could save them.

“Honestly, if you’ve seen their games throughout the course of this tournament … you could see that maybe some things weren’t clicking the way that sometimes they do with the U.S.,” Canada captain Christine Sinclair said. “ … Heading into this game, we kind of had a feeling they were ripe for the picking.”

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Canada didn’t waste its opportunity. Jessie Fleming scored on a rocket from the penalty spot to the left of backup goalkeeper Adrianna Franch in the 75th minute for the only goal Canada needed to seal a 1-0 win, its first against the United States since March 2001.

Canada advances to face Sweden in Friday’s gold medal match, while the Americans will go on to play Australia in the bronze medal game Thursday.

“I’m still in shock,” said Canada defender Kadeisha Buchanan, an eight-year veteran of the national team. “This is my first win, ever, against the USA after playing them how many times? And what a perfect time to win against them.”

The loss carries massive implications for the U.S. team.

Carli Lloyd sat on the pitch Monday after the final whistle and held her head in her hands as it started to rain, absorbing her second consecutive Olympic disappointment. The United States was knocked out of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games in the quarterfinals only to rebound with a triumphant tour de force in the 2019 World Cup in France and was trying to become the first team to capture Olympic gold following a World Cup victory.

Instead, the loss brought questions about the end of an era for the U.S. women’s soccer team.

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Lloyd, 39, who helped define the current moment alongside Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and captain Becky Sauerbrunn, said she was thinking only about the bronze medal match when asked about the future.

Rapinoe, still sporting the brilliant purple hair she made her trademark during the World Cup, deflected questions about her future while reflecting on all that her cohort achieved.

“There’s a few of us that are closer to the end than the beginning, certainly, and we’ve had an amazing run,” Rapinoe said. “We’ve had a lot of nights that looked different than that, a couple, I think … like three nights that looked like this. We’ve been through so much together, yeah, it’s kind of sad. But I feel like it’s in good hands, this group below us and even younger than that. I feel like we’ve done our job. But you never want to have it end.”

If the Americans want to stay rooted in the present, they’ll find plenty of mysteries awaiting them there, too. Coach Vlatko Andonovski faced criticism earlier in Tokyo for game plans that led to a 3-0 loss to Sweden and then a conservative 0-0 draw with Australia in the group stage. Against Canada, they came out lacking energy, movement and creativity in the midfield.

Most damning was that they couldn’t capitalize on a blitz of shots on goal even after Lloyd, Rapinoe and Christen Press subbed on in the 60th minute.

“It’s not like there was a bad vibe; the group is feeling good and everything. We just haven’t been able to find the juice we usually do,” Rapinoe said. “Yeah, it sucks.”

A turning point arrived early when goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who played the hero role against the Netherlands by saving two penalties in a shootout that sent the United States to the semifinals, left the game in the 30th minute because of an apparent knee injury.

Naeher initially tried playing through the injury after receiving medical attention and testing her knee following a spell of several minutes on the ground, but the 33-year-old looked wobbly when she returned to the pitch. Minutes later, Franch subbed in for her first appearance of these Games.

If the change had any effect on the team’s mind-set, it didn’t show. The sluggish play continued into the second half — it took until the 65th minute for the United States to get a shot on goal.

The Americans never converted, facing pressure from the Canadians all the while. The breakthrough came when U.S. defender Tierna Davidson kicked Deanne Rose while Rose cut in front of Davidson at the edge of the box. The play went to video review, a penalty was awarded and Fleming strode to her spot.

She blasted it high to Franch’s left, rippling past the keeper’s outstretched hands and into the side netting. Fleming had decided the night before where she would place a penalty, should she get the chance.

Sinclair — who was 17 and scored against the United States the last time Canada beat the Americans — handed her the ball.

“She went and grabbed the ball to keep it away from the American players and just put it in a Canadian hand,” Fleming said. “She didn’t really say anything. For me, I was just trusting myself in that moment to put it in the spot. I knew I could do it.”

This story has been updated.

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