USA-Canada women’s hockey rivalry to face off for Olympic gold (again)

The USA and Canada will meet in the women's hockey gold medal game
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BEIJING (AP) — American assistant captain Hilary Knight calls it “a beautiful rivalry.” Canadian captain Marie-Philip Poulin sums it up as “very fun.”

Don’t be fooled by the pleasantries.

One of international sports’ fiercest and longest-running grudge matches will play out for the second time at the Beijing Olympics, with the meeting Thursday between the United States and Canada determining who goes home with gold.

MORE WOMEN’S HOCKEY: USA-Canada gold medal preview, rivalry history

“These are the the games that we live for,” U.S. captain Kendall Coyne Schofield said following a 4-1 semifinal win over Finland. “Everyone’s been so resilient through the pandemic with the ups and downs, the cancellations, postponements and finding ways to train, and it’s for this moment. We’re going to empty the tanks, and this is what we came here to do.”

The U.S. is the defending Olympic champion after rallying to beat Canada 3-2 in a shootout at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games.

The Canadians are considered the favorites this time after steamrolling to a 6-0 record and outscoring opponents 54-8, including a 4-2 win over the U.S. in group play.

Canada also had the edge over its cross-border rivals since Poulin scored the gold-medal-winning goal in a 3-2 overtime win over the U.S. at the world championships in August to end the Americans’ streak of five tournament titles. Canada is 5-1-1 in the past seven meetings against the U.S. since.

Overall at the Olympics, which added women’s hockey in 1988, Canada is 6-3 against the U.S., with four gold medals to the Americans’ two.

Success aside, the lingering memory of 2018 stings.

“In all honesty, it was very anti-climactic for us to lose in a shootout, because it didn’t feel as if you lost a game,” said Canada forward Sarah Nurse, who leads the tournament with 16 points on four goals and 12 assists. “It almost felt like unfinished business. So going into this gold-medal game, regardless of who we play, we’re here to finish business and win a hockey game.”

Nurse spoke following a 10-3 semifinal win over Switzerland, and before knowing who Canada would face.

It’s only fitting that it’s the U.S., with the two countries meeting for the sixth time in seven Olympic finals. The exception was 2006, when Canada won the final against Sweden, which beat the U.S. in the semifinals.

The game Thursday will mark the fourth time that the U.S. and Canada will have met twice in the same Olympic tournament. In the first two instances, the Americans (1998 Nagano) and Canadians (2014 Sochi) won both times. In 2018, the U.S. won the title after a 2-1 loss to Canada in group play.

The challenge for the Americans is containing Canada’s relentlessly dynamic, quick-strike transition attack, which scored five times in a first-period span of 3:24 against Switzerland to set an Olympic record for the fastest five goals. Against the Americans, Canada overcame a 2-1 deficit by scoring three times in a span of 5:25.

Switzerland coach Colin Muller said the Canadians’ rolling four-line attack is dizzying because they make it hard for opponents to change lines.

“They’re just so tenacious,” Muller said, blowing into his mask in awe. “Like if you told me who’s their best player, I don’t even know, really. I look at their lineup before the game and I’m going, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’”

MORE WOMEN’S HOCKEY: Savannah Harmon blazes unexpected path to Olympic debut

U.S. coach Joel Johnson believes his team can compete, in part because it has yet to play its best game.

“When we played them the last time, I thought we were pretty good, but we didn’t generate enough great opportunities to score,” Johnson said.

Finishing chances has been an issue for the U.S., which ranks fifth out of 10 teams in scoring efficiency with 28 goals on a tournament-leading 334 shots. The Americans are also missing top-line center Brianna Decker, who broke her left leg in the tournament opener.

“I just feel really good about how we match up against Canada,” Johnson said. “I think if we can generate a few more scoring chances and make some plays, then that would hopefully be our best game.”

The Americans won’t go into detail, but they have a few grudges to settle. It’s evident when U.S. players reference the two nations’ nine-game pre-Olympic Rivalry Series being abruptly canceled with three game left because of Canada’s COVID-19 concerns.

What bugs the Americans is that they were preparing to play on home ice in Minnesota, with some 11,000 tickets sold, when the Canadians backed out at the last moment after Emily Clark tested positive.

And members of the U.S. team shook their heads at the drama Canada created upon refusing to take the ice for its preliminary round game against the Russians because their opponent’s COVID-19 tests results were not available. The start of the game was delayed by an hour and in jeopardy of being postponed, before the International Ice Hockey Federation reached a compromise to have the teams wear masks.

This is not how the Americans handled things, having no issue playing — and beating the Russians 5-0 — a day after an ROC player tested positive.

Every slight in this rivalry is taken personally, with each side paying close attention to what the other is doing.

“What do you want me to say?” Knight asked when the prospect of facing Canada once again was mentioned. “It gets the best and the worst out of both of us at the same time.”

Crystal Dunn returns to USWNT roster five months after giving birth

Nigeria v USWNT
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Crystal Dunn was named to the USWNT roster for two upcoming friendlies against England and Spain, marking her first official selection since giving birth to son Marcel in May.

Dunn made her NWSL return with the Portland Thorns earlier this month and also trained with the U.S. team as a non-rostered player ahead of friendlies vs. Nigeria.

In addition to Dunn, the 24-player roster features a veteran core of Alyssa Naeher, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan, Mallory Pugh, and Megan Rapinoe.

Alex Morgan was not named to the USWNT roster due to a knee injury. While U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski did not provide details of the injury, he noted that “if this was a World Cup final, Alex was going to be on this trip and was going to play, no question.”

Other roster highlights include 17-year-old Alyssa Thompson, who becomes the first player born in 2004 to receive a USWNT call-up. Thomas, a high senior, plays club soccer for the U-17 Total Futbol Academy boys’ team.

“We are very excited for her, very excited about her potential and qualities and looking forward to seeing how she will turn out in our environment,” Andonovski said of Thompson. “This camp is not make it or break it. It’s a first experience for her, it’s just something that she shouldn’t even worry about.”

The USWNT also includes a handful of players who have made their USWNT breakthrough this season — thanks in part to both strong NWSL play and injuries to more veteran players. That list includes the likes of Naomi Girma (7 caps), Taylor Kornieck (5 caps), Hailie Mace (5 caps), Sam Coffey (1 cap), and Savannah DeMelo (0 caps).

Andonovski on Thursday called Coffey, a midfielder for the Portland Thorns, a candidate for NWSL MVP.


USWNT Roster for October 2022 Friendlies vs. England and Spain

Goalkeepers (3):

  • Aubrey Kingsbury (Washington Spirit)
  • Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage)
  • Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)

Defenders(7):

  • Alana Cook (OL Reign)
  • Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Emily Fox (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Naomi Girma (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Sofia Huerta (OL Reign)
  • Hailie Mace (Kansas City Current)
  • Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns FC)

Midfielders (8):

  • Sam Coffey (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Savannah DeMelo (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Lindsey Horan (Olympique Lyon, FRA)
  • Taylor Kornieck (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Rose Lavelle (OL Reign)
  • Kristie Mewis (NJ/NY Gotham FC)
  • Ashley Sanchez (Washington Spirit)
  • Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit)

Forwards (6):

  • Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit)
  • Mallory Pugh (Chicago Red Stars)
  • Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign)
  • Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit)
  • Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Alyssa Thompson (Total Futbol Academy)

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”