KASHIMA, Japan—By halftime of the U.S. women’s soccer game in a Tokyo Olympics semifinal Monday a question hung in the air: Could the U.S. continue its two-decade unbeaten streak against Canada without its most valuable player of the tournament?
Lockdown goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher—who stopped three penalty kicks in the quarterfinal match against the Netherlands—left the game with an injury midway through the first half. Canada later scored on a penalty kick by Jessie Fleming in the 74th minute to take a 1-0 lead it kept until the end.
Time ran out on the Americans. They failed to advance to the Olympics gold-medal game for just the second time since the tournament began in 1996. And Canada beat their North American rivals who had stopped viewing it as rivals for the first time since March 11, 2001. The U.S. will move on to the bronze medal match on Sunday against the loser of the Sweden-Australia semifinal.
Now the highly decorated U.S. team, whose top 18 players at the Olympics average nearly 31 years old, faces questions about how much of the core group that led it to two consecutive World Cup titles will return for the next one, which will be played in Australia in 2023.
It isn’t so much that the rest of the world has caught up to the U.S.—although it is catching up—but that Canada was the first team to push it off its high perch. The U.S. has dominated the world rankings throughout its history, winning four World Cups and four Olympic gold medals.
“Things just didn’t fall our way,” U.S. forward Alex Morgan said, describing the entire Olympic tournament. “We didn’t play our best… I don’t know why.”
The game took a dramatic turn midway through the first half that put the U.S. in jeopardy.
In the 20th minute, goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher jumped to corral the ball and appeared to land awkwardly on her right leg, her knee hyper-extending. She lay on the ground for a few minutes as team personnel tended to her, then got up and resumed play.
But minutes later, Naeher appeared to be limping, and Adrianna Franch came in to replace her. Franch had only appeared in six games previously for the U.S. women, none in a major tournament. Franch was on the 2019 World Cup roster but didn’t play.
The first half ended with no score and neither team having mounted a single shot on goal.
The U.S. had history on its side. Canada hadn’t beaten the U.S. for two decades and hadn’t tied it since a 1-1 draw on Nov. 9, 2017. Canada is the most common opponent in U.S. women’s team history and the U.S. led the overall series 51-3-7 entering Monday’s game.
The U.S. and Canada played what was one of the best soccer games in history in the 2012 London Olympics semifinals. After trading goals one for one in regulation, the Americans won 4-3 on Alex Morgan’s goal in the 123rd minute.
Most of the key figures in that game are still on the American and Canadian teams: Christine Sinclair scored a hat trick to lead Canada, Megan Rapinoe scored the first two U.S. goals and retired star Abby Wambach scored the third on a penalty kick.
Sinclair last year became the all-time leader in international goals scored, men or women, passing Wambach for the title during Olympic qualifying, and entered Monday’s game with 187 goals. Sinclair is 38 years old.
Canada, which won Olympic bronze in 2012 and 2016, is ranked No. 8 in the world.
The U.S. reached the final by an unusually winding path. It lost in a shocker to Sweden 3-0 to open group play, trounced New Zealand 6-1 then tied Australia 0-0 as part of an exceptionally conservative tactical plan by coach Vlatko Andonovski to play defensively and survive into the knockout round.
The U.S. overcame a young, dangerous Netherlands team in penalty kicks of the semifinals on the heroic saves of Naeher. On Monday, she could only watch from the sideline.
Write to Rachel Bachman at Rachel.Bachman@wsj.com
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