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Olympic heartbreak drives Erin McLeod as World Cup set to begin

North Vancouver resident at the centre of controversial call in 2012 Olympic semifinals dreaming of a U.S. rematch

Erin McLeod has never watched a replay of the match that made her a household name in Canada while simultaneously enraging soccer fans across the country.

A quick refresher: It was the semifinals of the 2012 Olympic Games in London and Team Canada, thanks to an incredible hat trick from superstar Christine Sinclair, was less than 15 minutes away from an upset of the powerhouse United States and a berth in the Olympic final. The ball came to McLeod who held it for a while, then looked to throw it to one of her defenders, then decided just to punt it down the field. As she kicked it, however, Norwegian referee Christiana Pedersen blew her whistle and gave the U.S. team a free kick right in front of the goal, calling McLeod for holding the ball too long — a call that is almost never made at any level, let alone in the dying minutes of an Olympic semifinal. The free kick hit a Canadian hand in the box, the ensuing penalty tied it 3-3 and the United States scored in extra time to end one of the greatest, and most controversial, soccer games ever played. 

“I still haven’t watched the game to this day,” McLeod, who now lives in North Vancouver, told the North Shore News in a call from Toronto where the team was gearing up for an exhibition game in advance of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup which begins next weekend. “I remember after the Olympics feeling just heartbroken, but only because I felt like we had just done so well and I felt like we deserved more.”

McLeod recalled having thoughts that the team might blame her for the loss but said her teammates erased all of those doubts immediately.

“I took it to heart when it seemed like no one on the team blamed me for the game,” she said. “I think because of that it just made me want to do better for the team in the France game. I was able to use it as fuel at the time, and we got the bronze — it could have ended a lot worse.”

Zooming ahead to this year’s World Cup, there seems to be a sentiment among fans and in media coverage leading up to this tournament that it is a continuation of the 2012 Olympics, almost as if the story is picking up right where it left off in London. McLeod said that the team, though there are a few new faces, basically feels the same way.

“We often refer back to that tournament and use it for inspiration,” she said. “What I love from that (semifinal) game is the resilience that the team showed. Whether it was suspicious or not, our team was able to fight through it and keep present in the game, finish the game out well. It didn’t go our way, unfortunately, but I think after the game Christine Sinclair just said to the locker room, I don’t know about you guys but I’m not leaving here without a darn medal. We all kind of made that commitment to one another and I think it was a turning point for a lot of us. We had given everything we had. If you saw the France game (for bronze) we literally had nothing left and we were still able to pull out a win. I think it spoke volumes about the team and their heart. That’s an important piece for us, obviously, heading into the World Cup.”

In the end the team did score the best result in the history of Canadian soccer, even if it could have been even better. The team, however, is hoping that the 2012 result is just the start, not the peak.

“We’d like to see it is as just kind of a beginning for this program,” said McLeod. “We want it to be the beginning of consistent podium finishes.”

The tournament kicks off Saturday, June 6 with Canada hosting China at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton. McLeod, a native of St. Albert, Alta., will likely have lots of local support in Alberta but she will have a little bonus cheering section on the North Shore. Since moving to North Vancouver last November she’s hooked up with the West Vancouver Soccer Club and Destination Chrysler on a sponsorship deal that has seen her provide talks at several North Shore schools. She’s also recently been part of a weekly soccer program, along with West Van Soccer Club coach Ros Hicks, for young girls at the Squamish Nation’s Chief Joe Mathias Centre. 

“I love it,” she said of working with young players. “It takes a lot of energy but at the same time I remember being a kid — it’s a really important time to have positive role models, people who are passionate about the sport. . . . Obviously sport teaches a lot of things about teamwork, competition, humility, respect — a lot of essential things for growing up.”

Now focused solely on the World Cup, McLeod said the Canadian team is as good as it’s ever been.

“I’m excited for Canada to see our progress since the Olympics,” she said. “(Head coach John Herdman) said it two years ago: we want to be the most technically organized, most disciplined team, fittest team and most resilient team. We’ve been doing mental training on a regular basis, we’ve been going over tactics every day, my fitness has never been better.”

The build-up to the tournament has focused on a potential Canada vs. U.S.A. rematch, and while McLeod said there are many talented teams in the tournament, she admitted that she wants another crack at the Yanks.

“My dream would be to be playing them in BC Place in the final,” she said. “I definitely think we’re up for the challenge, and so are they. They’re obviously one of the best in the world. . . . I know Canada definitely looks forward to a rematch. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to it.”

And this time around the Canadians hope to take the game out of the referee’s hands completely.

“At the end of the day, a game shouldn’t be determined by one or two calls,” she said, adding with a laugh that since the Olympic controversy many referees have treated her a little bit differently.

“It’s kind of funny,” she said. “Most refs that I come across now are always warning me and making sure. . . . They’ll be like, ‘hurry it up, keeper.’ I think they just make it a point so that it’s very clear. Anyway, I appreciate it. It’s all good.”

Team Canada is hoping that it all adds up to a World Cup victory on home soil. Now that would be a replay that McLeod could watch over and over.