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Opinion: Canada believes it can beat USWNT in Olympic semifinals. Except it rarely has

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TOKYO — It’s not a true rivalry unless you can actually win a game every once in a while.

The USWNT’s semifinal against Canada is being made out to be the latest in a long series of grudge matches between the otherwise friendly neighbors. Which, aside from that testy meeting in the semis at the London Olympics, it really is not.

“If we turn up and do what we can do, I believe – I truly believe, and I believed this in February – I believe we can do this,” Canada coach Bev Priestman said Sunday.

OK. But, so far, Canada hasn’t.

The USWNT has played the Canadians more than any other opponent, 61 times ahead of the Tokyo Olympics. The Americans have won 51 of those games, and the teams have played to a draw seven times.

United States players celebrate after defeating Netherlands in a penalty shootout in the quarterfinals of the Tokyo Games.
United States players celebrate after defeating Netherlands in a penalty shootout in the quarterfinals of the Tokyo Games.

For those who don’t want to do the math, that means the Canadians have won all of three games since the teams began playing in 1986. And the last one of those came back in 2001. (To put that in context: Carli Lloyd was still a teenager then.)

Even the last draw was almost four years ago, and the Americans have won four more games since then.

I get it. After bulldozing their way through the World Cup to win their second consecutive title in 2019, the Americans have looked vulnerable in Tokyo. They were held scoreless in two of their three group games, including a 3-0 loss to Sweden in the opener, and needed a shootout to beat the Netherlands in the quarterfinals Friday.

They have, at times, looked old and tired. This is coach Vlatko Andonovski’s first major tournament at the helm and sometimes his lineups and tactics reflect that.

“You never underestimate the United States of America. They’re one of the top nations in the world with class players front and back,” Canada midfielder Desiree Scott said. “But I do think you watch the tournament, you watch the games progress, and you see 'Ooh, maybe this is our time.’ That does build a bit of confidence.

“What a better time than now to do it?”

But aside from Sweden, there’s no team that’s been able to talk smack about the USWNT and then back it up on the field.

The French chirped ahead of the 2019 quarterfinal after a shellacking of the Americans earlier in the year, and looked how that turned out. Some of the Netherlands players were talking big before Friday night’s game, and they’ll now be watching the rest of the tournament from their couches.

It’s like Michigan insisting it’s still competitive in The Game even though Ohio State has won the past eight and all but one since 2004.

“We had some very good times during the game but it doesn’t matter,” goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal said after the Dutch were eliminated. “We go home and they stay in the tournament.”

MEDAL COUNT: Full list of each country's medal total at the Summer Olympics

Even when they look beatable, the Americans have a knack for being able to turn it around once the knockout games begin. See the 2011 World Cup. And the 2015 World Cup.

And, of course, the London Olympics.

The USWNT rallied to tie Canada three times, the last goal coming thanks to some gamesmanship by Abby Wambach. The Americans felt Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod was holding the ball a second or two too long in an effort to slow the game down, so Wambach started counting out loud to call referee Christiana Pedersen’s attention to it.

It worked. In the 78th minute, McLeod was whistled for time wasting after holding the ball for more than the allowed six seconds; estimates were it was anywhere from eight to 11 seconds. Megan Rapinoe’s free kick went off a Canadian player’s arm, and Wambach converted the penalty to tie the game.

Alex Morgan then scored in injury time of overtime to give the Americans the win.

“All of us remember that 2012 match,” Scott said. “Our team is completely different now I would say. We have developed as a program, as people on the field, the brand of soccer we play has really evolved. … We now have attack and defense going both ways.

“We’re just a more confident group,” she added. “I think our edge will come from the belief we have in ourselves. In 2012, we were kind of on a hope and on a prayer, hoping we could get to that match. But now we truly believe in ourselves and what we can do on a soccer pitch, and believe we can get to that gold-medal game.”

Confidence is good. So, too, a little swagger.

But if you really want to make it a rivalry, it's going to take more than talk.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2021 Olympics: USWNT's meetings with Canada spicy, but not a rivalry