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August 8, 2012

On Monday, in the soccer field at Old Trafford in Manchester, England, the United States and Canada met up in the Olympic women's soccer semifinal. It was a terrific, physical, aggressive, gripping match -- even for someone like me who does not watch that much women's soccer. And where did we find ourselves, yet again  Not marveling at the amazing display of athleticism, but hand-wringing over accusations of cheating.
It was an amazing match, by any standard. In the 22nd minute of play, Canadian forward Christine Sinclair scored against the U.S. -- the first time this had happened since the Olympic quarterfinal in 2008. At 54 minutes, it became a tit-for-tat between Sinclair and U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe, and at minute 73 Canada was up 3-2. Then there was a penalty that resulted in an indirect free kick (an easy shot to miss), which resulted in another penalty kick and tied the game. In extra time, U.S. striker Alex Morgan headed in a goal from six yards out.

Game over. The U.S. heads to London to play Japan for the gold medal.
It's the rematch of the 2011 Women's World Cup that everyone's been
salivating for.

Now, about that penalty.

In soccer, there's a rule about the goalkeeper not holding up the match by hanging on to the ball too long before putting it in play. No one really pays attention to that rule. Canada goalkeeper Erin McLeod violated it, maybe or maybe not after a warning, maybe or maybe not with Abby Wambach counting the seconds in the referee's  ear.  The ref, Christiana Pederson, invoked the rule, which resulted in the free kick, which resulted in the penalty kick, which resulted in the tie score.

Alex Morgan's amazing header in extra time, which resulted in the U.S. win, happened all by itself.

That call on McLeod is extremely rare -- as in, it never happens. Pia Sundhage, the coach for the U.S. team, had never seen it, she told NBC News. Commentator Steve Davis said the same.

Rare might make it questionable; it might even make it irresponsible. It doesn't de facto make it illegal or intentionally biased. I also don't think it's a reason to cry on the field, as did Christine Sinclair and Sophie Schmidt,   no matter how frustrated and angry they were. It's undignified. So is pointing fingers, as Sinclair did right after the game: "We felt that the referee took it away from us, so, yes, we are disappointed. We feel like we didn't lose, we feel like it was taken from us. It's a shame in a game like that, which is so important, that the ref decided the result before the game started."

It would appear that the U.S. team's style of play elicited ire well before this match. Before the game, John Herdman, coach of Canada's team, told the Associated Press that "some of the blocking tactics" were  "highly illegal" and required monitoring:  "Obviously they're trying to free up a key player, but in a very illegal way.... The U.S., it's what they do well."

All right, then. The referee is cheating because she made a stupid, but not illegal, call, and the U.S. team is cheating because they play rough.


As it turns out, FIFA, the world soccer regulatory body, agrees with me.

When news first broke that FIFA had commenced an investigation  I began to wonder: Would this have happened in a men's match My answer, written in an earlier draft of this column, was No. Why Because it is expected that men will push the boundaries.

As it turns out, FIFA is far more concerned about the whining than about the referees, declaring today that it is "analyzing incidents that occurred after the conclusion" of the game. As I write, it's not clear whether Sinclair and Schmidt face suspension or the team fines. Either way, I say: good for FIFA.

Here's the thing: Women's soccer is different from the men's game in that the women generally follow the rules, such as no touching, no hitting, no "playing the man," as it were, no holding the ball for more than six seconds. Men foul more, and when they do they foul harder. As a result, the way rules are enforced has become more flexible: instead of a free kick, a
warning yellow card.

The U.S. women's team has taken a page from that playbook.They've pushed their sport in the same direction that it's gone on the men's side. If the U.S. Canada game was any indication, their methods yield closer, more physical, more exciting games. One would think that's progress.

Canada didn't benefit from complaining about a call that didn't go their way a call that followed the letter of soccer law while accusing the U.S. team of playing dirty pool. A better response might have been to set the hypocrisy aside and expend their anger on the soccer pitch.