May 31, 2013, 9:00 AM EDT
‘Rivalry’ is a funny word. It instantly sparks an emotional reaction; it’s polarizing. A rivalry exists between two parties that not only don’t get along, but have a history of encounters.
To get technical, a rivalry is a “competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field.”
By nature, rivalries can’t be fabricated or contrived – they have to occur naturally and they have to be developed over time.
In sport, the most organic foundation for a rivalry is geography. Across the world intra-city derbies and other closely stationed teams play in these sort of matches every year, some more devout and dangerous than others.
Stateside, the still-growing sport of soccer has rivalries in their infancy with the making of something great. We see it in the Pacific Northwest, where Portland-vs.-Seattle-anything produces a host of fanfare in the stands and distaste on the field. It exists elsewhere, too, like when some of Major League Soccer’s Northeast teams play (most notably still New York and D.C. United).
So it’s only natural that two bordering nations should be nemeses, which is where the United States and Canada find themselves in women’s soccer.
Canada, the bronze medalists at the 2012 London Olympics, plays the role of little sister. They stand in the shadows of their neighbors to the south and they absolutely hate that. Canada strives to be on an equal level with the U.S., which isn’t an achievement far from reality for the Canada team ranked No. 7 in the world.
For its part, the United States is the typical big sister – wins a lot, gets all the attention, and kind of gets a chuckle out of all the commotion little sister causes trying to steal the spotlight.
On Sunday in Toronto, these two teams play for the first time since the United States won that epic 2012 Olympic semifinal at Old Trafford, a 4-3 victory stolen in extra time on Alex Morgan’s header.
Sunday is, as Canada’s marketing arm tells us, literally “The Rematch.”
A win won’t make up for the gut-wrenching loss in Manchester last year; it won’t make bronze turn into gold or silver and it won’t exact enough revenge to heal a country of fans still recovering from a loss they’ll be telling their grandchildren about.
But Sunday is another step in building the rivalry, particularly if Canada wins.
One of the most important caveats of a rivalry is that it cannot be one-sided. Dominant teams and lopsided records don’t make for the tense drama required in a matchup of two old foes. This is where the USA-Canada matchup loses its case as a well-established meeting of enemies.
The United States owns a commanding 44-3-5 record all-time vs. Canada. The Americans haven’t lost to Canada in over 12 years, and even that came in an Algarve Cup game in which the U.S. brought a young, inexperienced team to Portugal as to not disrupt the first preseason of the Women’s United Soccer Association.
A game like Sunday’s, particularly in a friendly, is just another game the U.S. expects to win, just as they would against any team in the world. A match against Canada doesn’t contain much bite or emotion than one against Sweden or Germany, two teams that still sit in the elite tier for which Canada strives.
Don’t be fooled, this is a rivalry, but the roots of it don’t run as deep as the hype may suggest. Not for the Americans, anyway.
The Canadians openly admit that Sunday’s matchup is more important to them.
“I think this one will mean more to us more than anything because of the fans,” Canada midfielder Diana Matheson said. “We want to give back to the fans that were so behind us at the Olympics.”
No reminder is needed regarding what happened at Old Trafford. A Christine Sinclair hat trick was negated by Megan Rapinoe’s brilliance, Abby Wambach clock-counting to the referee and Morgan’s 123rd minute header, the latest goal in FIFA history and the comeback that outdid the comeback kids themselves.
It’s that drama that built the anticipation to this rematch for so many months. It’s that wild, controversial ending at the Olympics that caused this match to sellout the 20,000-plus seat BMO Field in less than an hour. And it’s that sort of drama that should make for a great rivalry moving forward (with the next major tournament being the 2015 World Cup…in Canada, don’t forget).
But for all the angst – for the 52 meetings and all the buzz – this rivalry still seems contrived, for lack of a better word. Rest assured, Canada carries that chip on its shoulder as overshadowed and underdog, and likely reads words such as these in somewhat agreement, but with motivation to change the trend of American dominance.
The U.S. has sat on its perch as the No. 1 team in the world for over five consecutive years. The Americans are the three-time defending Olympic gold medalists. But they are not invincible, and to repeat a line whispered and then shouted across the globe over the past three years, the rest of the world is catching up. That world includes Canada, right in their backyard, taking on the ambitious, fighting nature of its coach John Herdman to climb the ranks to challenge the best teams in the world.
Canadians have put in some of the most impressive performances in the opening seven weeks of the National Women’s Soccer League. Matheson, with the Washington Spirit, and Sophie Schmidt, with Sky Blue FC, are two off the best midfielders in a league that gives 16 Canadians a professional team on which they can develop on this continent.
In a down year for women’s soccer in North America (Euro 2013 is the big event), this matchup is more about the marketing and the growth of women’s soccer – both in interest and for two of the world’s best teams to get better – than it is about winning the game on Sunday.
Just don’t tell Canada that Sunday’s result doesn’t matter.
“In the last eight or nine games we have given a lot of opportunities to new players,” Herdman said. “But now this is a time to face in the world No. 1.”
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