A bounceback US performance that ended Canada's medal contention.
July 15, 2022 by Edward Stephens in Recap with 0 comments
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BIRMINGHAM, AL — The stakes were massive for the final game of pool play between long-time North American rivals Canada and the United States. The only two nations ever to have won a World Games gold medal found themselves squaring off with a view of two opposite prospects: either a place in semis to keep the championship dream alive or a greatly disappointing early exit from contention. The teams played evenly through the first half, but constant pressure from the American defense eventually led to a comfortable 13-8 US victory.
The game began, fittingly, with a goal for Claire Trop, her first of four. The young superstar was a supernova for the US, creating downfield separation as a cutter and erasing downfield separation as a defender for the entirety of the match. Brittney Dos Santos, Canada’s brightest light for the first two days of pool play, matched her American counterpart’s speed and determination with a deep cut of her own, catching the disc in spite of a tremendous Kaela Helton bid to set up a first Canadian hold.
If the power cutting from the first two points was a clear sign of the intensity the teams had brought to the game, the end of the third point took the same message and put it on a highway billboard. Carolyn Finney threw a forehand from midfield to the center of the end zone for Dylan Freechild. He had a good line on the play, but Finney’s disc was thrown early enough and with enough float that Malik Auger-Semmar had a chance to catch up. Just as Auger-Semmar began to spring for the disc, Freechild cheekily plucked it out from ahead of him. Without a second’s hesitation, he cried out in celebration and threw it down to the ground for an enormous spike.
In spite of the high emotional pitch, Canada held steady. Tim Tsang and Lauren Kimura anchored the offense around the red zone, where they were able to secure scores with practice-like efficiency.
It was the United States who blinked first. At 3-3, Carolyn Normile looked to center the disc to Jimmy Mickle. The throw was well off target, giving Canada a wide-open transition counter with a short field. Molly Lewis found Auger-Semmar without any trouble to give Canada the lead.
Both offenses worked through some hiccoughs over the next few possessions. The defenses, meanwhile, escalated their execution even further. Robbie Brennan rose above the much larger Mickle to spoil a huck. It was the highlight of the match for exactly one possession. Helton one-upped him with a chase-down shoulder high layout at the goal line to prevent Canada from tacking on a second break. On the second possession of the point, the US seemed to dial in their throws. Mickle put up a backhand huck for Khalif El-Salaam. Mike Mackenzie was in the area, but El-Salaam dragged his cut toward the sideline to set up a perfect box-out and jump for the goal. Mackenzie couldn’t get anywhere near it.
The US got their break back and take a 6-5 when Tsang overthrew Kevin Underhill on an away route. Before the half ended, though, Ty Barbieri made a spectacular catch, swimming through the air with his arms to make a last-ditch lunge for a speedy huck near the sideline. It ranks with earlier plays in the day by Sarah Meckstroth, Sam McGuckin, and Manu Cardenas as a highlight moment.
Careful US offense took the game to half on serve. The Americans’ performance through the first half was a night-and-day change from their efforts on the previous two games. They were doing more of the work with their legs in the middle of the field and resisting the choice to try to end points with a single score more often than not. “We were happy with the way we were playing in that first half,” said Freechild. “If we go out that way, we’re not going to be ashamed of the loss. And we know that when we play that way we always had a chance to win… And it only takes one point to win a game, so the closeness wasn’t something that we were too worried about.”
Canada were equally happy with the state of play after 13 points. “We felt confident going into the second half,” said Team Canada captain Hannah Dawson. “We were trusting each other and playing fearlessly, which was our motto going into the game.”
Smart defensive positioning out of the half paved the way for an immediate United States break. They planted both Mickle and Claire Chastain next to Dos Santos at the front of the stack: it was an easy block for Mickle when Canada forced the throw to her.
A second break soon followed. Trop completely smothered a short pass up the line and raced toward the end zone. Helton picked up the disc and powered a forehand to the space. It hung just long enough to allow Kevin Underhill into the frame for a cameo on Trop’s poster sky. It was the feature moment of a three-break run to start the half that would prove decisive for the US.
The United States changed looks several times to keep Canada off balance down the stretch. “We went [force middle] a few times – and we try not to go too many times in a row. I think we got two out of three breaks [forcing middle] then we went back to [forcing] one-way for two points. I just think we switched up the pace a little bit,” said Freechild.
As Canada’s throws loosened up and they realized they were running out of points to come back into the game, play became physical. In another feat of unbelievable athleticism, Barbieri flew over the back of a pack of players to save a hanging throw – not a feat he could accomplish, however, without hitting Nate Goff hard in the back. El-Salaam misjudged a chance for a block on a reset to Mackenzie on the ensuing possession, colliding with him as he landed. Auger-Semmar came down against Goff after making what they eventually came to agree was a clean play.
Both teams were philosophical about the level of physicality. “There were probably six or seven [incidents], but I think it was pretty evenly split. And I don’t think anyone felt like it was aggressive, more than just that both teams really, really wanted to win,” said Freechild. “I think that’s kind of what good spirit is. We recognize that there’s a lot on the line, and no one crossed the line. That’s the kind of physicality that I’m happy with – and I’m also happy with a team who says we need to pull it back a little bit.”
For Dawson, the contact was familiar. “Every player on the field here is used to playing each other in the club Series with USAU,” she said. “And I think we both know the styles of play, similar styles of play that we see throughout the regular season. Definitely our team was empassioned in this game… I think each individual matchup kind of knows the level of physicality that they can jockey with.”
Canada’s errors kept the US on the offensive. The Americans mostly capitalized on the opportunities. When Mickle threw a forehand for Meckstroth so fast that even a fully-extended Dos Santos could not get a fingertip to the disc, the deficit was a practically insurmountable 12-7 deficit. They had one moment of brilliance left to give, though, because Dawson still had plenty left in the tank. She toasted her defender on an upline cut, planted a pivot, and slung a dart of a back-shoulder forehand to the end zone for Brennan.
The US simply ran back their previous score to finish the game. Mickle brought the disc into play at the brick and sent a backhand to the end zone to Meckstroth. The score punctuated an offensive performance that was, if not mistake-free, at least much closer to calculated and unified than the US had previously demonstrated. “We haven’t played a game like that all year,” said Freechild. They enter a difficult semifinal against Colombia on a high note.
The loss is a disappointing one for a Canada side who entered the tournament as legitimate medal hopefuls. “A few little errors added up over the second half,” said Dawson.
“It was a bit of a slip,” agreed Kimura. “I think just a little bit of a mental slippage. Unfortunately, in a game like this, you give it a little bit, and they take it a mile.”