U.S. women's 1-1 draw felt like a win for Canada

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- This city will always be special for American soccer. The roar that followed the goal the U.S. women conceded Thursday night was a reminder that it will never be home.

By about the length of U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher's finger, Canada still doesn't have the win it craves against its rival on home soil. But thanks to a second-half tying goal from the combination of Adriana Leon and Christine Sinclair, the Canadian women walk away from a game against the United States with something other than a loss for just the 10th time in 57 meetings. The 1-1 draw seemed enough for a crowd of more than 28,000, larger than anything even the beloved Vancouver Canucks will draw in the smaller arena next door to BC Place.

So like much with this American team at the moment, the ability to send someone else's fans home unhappy is still something of a work in progress.

Indeed, the home team sounded more than satisfied by the way the proceedings unfolded.

"I never have ended a 90 minutes against the U.S. feeling the way I did, almost like we did win," Canadian midfielder Desiree Scott said. "I was just super proud of everyone who left absolutely everything on the pitch. But also just the way we built in the attack and the confidence we had on the ball. That fear of the U.S. is not there anymore, which I think is great. You can see it by the way we're playing."

Never one to pass up the last word, or the last barb, Canada coach John Herdman -- who earlier in the week compared the rivalry to the "Rocky" movies if Rocky Balboa never won -- added that the U.S. women should feel they were fortunate to get out of Vancouver with as much as a draw.

His optimism isn't unfounded. If not for Naeher's save on Maegan Kelly's shot that deflected off the post in the 84th minute, Canada would have won. And if it didn't control the bulk of the game, it certainly did a job of making sure the United States didn't, either. Chasing everything, sending speed down the flanks at every opportunity, changing up their formation in a planned move after 30 minutes, the Canadians forced the Americans to react to them.

That is unfamiliar tactical territory for any U.S. team, and it came on decidedly unfamiliar territory.

American fans streamed across the border and turned the streets surrounding this stadium into a sea of red, white and blue when the United States won the 2015 Women's World Cup final here. Those supporters haven't needed their passports much in the intervening years.

Neither have the players, for that matter.

Since winning the World Cup here, the United States has played a grand total of six games beyond its own borders, four in last summer's Olympics and two this past summer in Scandinavia. Those wins against Norway and Sweden, played before small crowds, were the only games on a foe's home soil.

All of which meant that this was the first start for Lynn Williams outside the United States. It was the third for Casey Short and just the fourth for Sam Mewis. Substitutes Andi Sullivan and Taylor Smith had never played outside their country at the senior level. Even Naeher, far from a new face, hasn't spent all that much time in goal beyond her own borders.

"This is probably the biggest game many of our players have had," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. "We play a lot of home games, and until you come into an environment like this and experience an environment like this -- which was fantastic, by the way -- it tests you. That's why we wanted to come and why we wanted to play here."

Hearing your anthem played first isn't exactly the kind of thing that should be unexpected to unsettle players who have come through youth international, college and professional road environments, but the challenge of playing in a foreign environment is emblematic of a lot of bumps in the road for this team on the way to the next World Cup.

The U.S. women could easily have won this game without really deserving the result over 90 minutes. A good move from Megan Rapinoe down the left side in the first half produced a shot that beat keeper Stephanie Labbé but kissed off the far post and rolled all the way back across the face of the goal. And after scoring the opening goal on a nice finish in the first half, Alex Morgan had two looks from point-blank range in the second half that were blocked by Canada's Janine Beckie.

But moments of excellence were all the Americans had, from Morgan adeptly heading a scramble ball past one defender before finishing for her team-best sixth goal of the year to all the near-misses. The next most memorable sight was defender Becky Sauerbrunn repeatedly having to dribble in circles, waiting for some passing angle or some movement off the ball, with Beckie nipping at her heels.

Ellis credited Canada for its play. She talked about her outside backs getting locked too deep by those Canadian flyers down the flank. But more than anything, the U.S. women lacked a sense of self with the ball.

"When you talk about rhythm, it's really about having the ball and keeping the ball when you have it," Ellis said. "I think at times we were a little bit frivolous with the pass."

They have about 72 hours to sort that out before the teams meet in front of a sold-out home crowd in San Jose, California, on Sunday.

"I think that playing maybe a little bit quicker under pressure, finding support angles to give players more options, things like that," Mewis said of some of what was missing Thursday. "But I'm excited to watch the game, I'm excited to go over film as a team and discuss it and figure out what I can do better to help the team more."

What stood out Thursday was that Canada played with a discernible intent. It set out to play a certain way, and although full of its own imperfections, it followed through on that plan. As Scott said, everyone was committed to a particular approach. The identity was obvious.

After making use of 34 players this year, including 13 newcomers, and dealing with injuries to mainstays such as Tobin Heath and Carli Lloyd (who came on in the second half Thursday) and rising influencers such as Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh, the United States looked unsure of what it wants to be with the ball. It looked like a team without an identity yet.

"I think that's something that we're trying to find," Sauerbrunn said. "We've gone through a lot -- a transition year, we have a lot of new players. We're trying new formations. So I think, yeah, the chemistry is not where we need it to be right now. Do we all hope we'll get that chemistry really fast? Absolutely. But it's in progress right now. So it's good to play a game like this, where you're thrown under it. And in an environment like this, you're going to learn a lot."

Home they head, knowing a lot of work still remains before they can leave for France in 2019.