Naeher’s penalty heroics end Canada’s dreams and send US into W Gold Cup final

March 7 – It was a night of high drama in the second semi-final of the W Gold Cup at the Snapdragon Stadium in San Diego.

The US overcame Canada 4-1 on penalties after the Canadians had equalised in the minute of added time at the end of extra time. The US hero was goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher who saved three of Canada’s spot kicks and scored her own penalty to send her country into the final on Sunday against Brazil.

It was a remarkable night of Gold Cup football.

What began as a farce, was at times a comedy as the players delivered slapstick performances, and turned into high drama as Canada chased the win that ultimately could only end in tragedy for one of the teams in a penalty shoot-out.

The match began in conditions that were barely playable.

Torrential rain had preceded the hour before kick off and was still falling when the match started, leaving the pitch with standing water in the central areas, making it virtually impossible to play through them and certainly not possible to dribble the ball at back lines.

US coach Twila Kilgore stuck with the same starting 11 that opened the 3-0 win over Colombia.

Bev Preistman made two Canadian changes from the 1-0 win over Costa Rica, bringing in Deanne Rose in attack in the search to improve Canada’s shots-to-goals ratio and Simi Awujo in midfield.

Within a minute of the start, Trinity Rodman swallow dived in the Canadian half, earning a good 8 points for style but dropping marks for excessive splash. It set the tone for a half that was unpredictable and at times verging on farcical.

With the ball barely rolling, the players were too often left thrashing in puddles.

The US’s Alex Morgan was twice through on balls over the top only for the ball to stick in the water as she travelled past.

At the US end, Deanne Rose similarly overran a ball that refused to roll through the swamp.

On 20’ the lottery luck fell USA’s way. A pass back from Vanessa Gilles stuck in the surface water when it would normally have rolled to Canada keeper Kailen Sheridan.  Jaedyn Shaw pounced into the gap between an adrift Sheridan and a stranded Gilles to clip the ball in.

It was the first goal Canada had conceded in the tournament.

Despite the waterlogged pitch Canada still took their passing game to the US, attempting to use the width of the pitch but literally getting stuck in the channels with the final ball not rolling.

The US in turn used their pace on the counter and a more direct approach, but were similarly stuck in the swamp.

By half time the rain had stopped, five men with mops had arrived to brush off the worst of the surface water, and the players retired to the dressing room to change wetsuits.

The second act began with the scenery altered but not entirely changed. In the 48th minute Jessie Fleming had a call for a penalty turned down after being sent surfing in the US box.

Three minutes later a US attack saw the ball dribble out to the right after a bit of water polo through the middle. The ball was crossed to Lindsey Horan who was increasingly getting into good forward positions from midfield but headed over.

Canada kept pushing and built a strong period of possession. A Fleming corner saw Gilles sent sprawling in the box – VAR was unmoved, perhaps washed away, as that looked at least worthy of a review.

As the game progressed the pitch became slightly more playable but was still sticky.

In the 82nd minute Canada had an equaliser and without the influence of the playing conditions.

Ashley Lawrence on the right crossed to Jordyn Huitema, on as a sub, who held off her challenging defender to head past Alyssa Naeher in the US goal – 1-1.

With the clock ticking towards 90’ the US attacked. A corner was scrambled off the line by the Canadians who countered and spent the bulk of the six minutes of added time threatening the US box.

With the pitch improved from the splash pool it had started as, the game was starting to flow more recognisably.

Preistman rotated her bench, bringing on starlet Olivia Smith up front for defender Kadeisha Buchanan. Canada were now playing with four strikers.

Eight minutes into added time the US were back in front. A ball down the middle slowed on the still wet surface enough for Sophia Smith, on as a sub, to get there first and shoot past Sheridan.

Canada pressed in the second half of extra time and just when it looked like the curtain was coming down on their tournament they scored their equaliser.

In the minute of added time at the end of extra time, Gilles met a long ball into the box but just headed wide as she was brought down by Naeher. VAR called the referee to the pitchside monitor who then pointed to the spot. Adriana Leon stepped up to make it 2-2.

It was the final action of playing time.

Next came the encore of a penalty shoot-out and Naeher’s chance to steal the show.

Sophia Smith scored first for the US and then Naeher faced Leon for the second time, guessing correctly to give the US the edge. She then saved from Huitmena, and scoring one herself, before saving a third from Fleming to send the US into the final to meet Brazil on Sunday.

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