Diana Matheson gets a break and Canada grabs a bronze medal in Olympic women's soccer

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

COVENTRY, England -- They were lucky, and they knew it. They had nothing left after their controversial semifinal loss to the United States, and they were dominated by France in the second half, and after the goal post and the crossbar and the goal-line save and all the other close calls, they caught a miraculous break when the ball ricocheted off a French defender and fell right at the foot of Diana Matheson in the 91st minute.

But when Matheson kicked that ball into that gaping net Thursday, they believed everything changed. Somehow they slipped past France 1-0 and won bronze in women's soccer -- Canada's first medal in a traditional team sport at a Summer Olympics since silver in men's basketball in 1936. This is no longer the team that finished last in the World Cup a year ago, the team that fired its coach, the team that needed a turnaround.

"The beauty today is we've raised the bar," coach John Herdman said. "And that's what I loved about this tournament. We were either going to go one of two ways: We were going to have a call for Herdman's head and more moan and groan, the paranoia around, 'We need a new coach and a new program.' But I think we've gone the other way now.

[ Related: Sinclair infuriated by referee in semifinal loss ]

"This is about productive paranoia. We're now at the top of the game. We finished third in the world. That's a massive achievement. The job now is to stay there and get higher, get closer to the USA."

And to get there by 2015, when the World Cup comes to Canada.

"We want to be in the final with the USA," Herdman said, "and winning it."

Herdman said that on the podium at the post-match news conference, sitting next to captain Christine Sinclair, one of the best players in the world. Sinclair is confident, intense, with a game face that rivals Mark Messier's. She led her team and led this tournament with six goals, an Olympic record. She is not easily intimidated. But at that, even she seemed unsure. She smiled, turned away from the microphone and had a word with him.

"Pressure?" she said.

Pressed by a reporter, Herdman did not back down.

"Let's set the bar high," Herdman said. "Let's inspire the nation to get behind the team. Everyone will say, 'Well, don't set the bar too high. Underpromise and overdeliver.' No, let's overpromise and deliver with it. We've got four years to do it. … Let's make 2015 even bigger and better than this."

"OK," Sinclair said.

[ Related: U.S. women advance to gold-medal match on late stunner ]

Herdman took over a program at its low point. The Canadians had scored only goal while losing all three of their matches at last summer's World Cup, including an embarrassing 4-0 defeat to France. He said in his office he kept a picture of Sinclair in the aftermath -- head in her hands, anger and despair on her face -- motivating him to "never see a player of that quality in that state after a tournament."

Well, the Canadians made the semifinals of this tournament, but there was still anger and despair on Sinclair's face. She had tried to will the Canadians to win against their rivals, the Americans, the best team in the game for a decade, Monday night in Manchester. She scored; they scored. She scored; they scored. She scored again. Then they scored again, thanks to a rare delay-of-game call, a handball call and a penalty kick.

And then they scored the winner in the 124th minute, a painful kick in the gut. Sinclair and her teammates were furious with the officiating -- so furious they made comments that drew a FIFA investigation and are expected will result in a slap on the wrist after the Games.

Herdman guaranteed the Canadians would still win a medal. But for 90 minutes Thursday, it seemed like a false promise. The Canadians looked drained physically, mentally and emotionally.

"We thought the emotions of the bronze medal game would sort of take us through it," Sinclair said. "But I think most of us realized part way through the first half that we were absolutely gassed."

How gassed were they? Forward Melissa Tancredi said she didn't even think she could run before the game. She struggled so badly that Herdman subbed for her in the 77th minute, even though the game was scoreless and she had four goals in the tournament, second only to Sinclair's six.

"I was done," Tancredi said, even though she is 30 and this was likely her last Olympics. "My body couldn't go anymore."

[ Photos: U.S. soccer star Alex Morgan ]

After an uneventful first half, the French were all over the Canadians in the second half. Gaetane Thiney hit the left post. Elodie Thomas hit the crossbar. Corine Franco fired a shot through traffic that defender Desiree Scott kneed out of danger. The French fired several shots wide of the goal, and goalkeeper Erin McLeod made save after save.

McLeod might have been the Achilles' heel in the opening 2-1 loss to Japan, coming too far out of her net, allowing a sloppy one. But here, Tancredi said, it was like she had "two Achilles' in each leg. She's up in the air just dominating. It's unbelievable."

"If she's not the best goalkeeper in the world, she should be in the discussion," Sinclair said. "She kept our team in it."

Then, somehow, the Canadians pushed the ball to the other end of the field. And then, inexplicably, the ball bounced off that French defender just right. And then, just like in the movies, "it was definitely in slow motion for a second," Matheson said.

Matheson scored. As they celebrated, the referee told them they had 10 seconds left, and it sunk in. Bronze. A medal. At the Olympics. They kicked off, the whistle went and then they celebrated some more, dancing around the field with their flag.

"It felt like a dream," Matheson said.

"I think I'm in shock," Sinclair said.

[ Related: Wambach's brain proves crucial in win over Canada ]

It felt like a nightmare to the French, who were in shock, too. Some players lay staring at the sky. Others sat looking at their feet. Defender Wendie Renard sat with her back against one of those damn Canadian goal posts for a long, long time. French coach Bruno Bini compared soccer to love. You can put your heart into it, and the other person can still walk away. The Canadians could relate.

"I feel like things like this never happen for Canada," defender Candace Chapman said.

But it happened this time, and now Herdman is looking toward next time. He wants girls to be inspired by heroes like Sinclair and Tancredi and McLeod and Matheson and Scott. He wants this moment to matter, this moment to last.

"If I was a parent in my front room with my kids, I think we'd be going nuts when that goal went in," Herdman said. "The kids would be flying over the sofa, and we'd all be jumping around. Those are the moments, great moments, that families have together in sport. I can see dads and moms in the gardens with their daughters kicking balls around, and this group wanted to leave that legacy."

See you in 2015.

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