How a rivalry was born: The humble story of the first USWNT-Canada games

The first victory in USWNT history came over Canada, sparking a regional rivalry which remains strong today.

It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship that eventually became one of the fiercest rivalries in women’s soccer.

There was no Women’s World Cup on the horizon, no Olympic soccer tournament, nor even a hint of a women’s professional league. But in the summer of 1986, U.S. Soccer invited Canada to play three international friendlies as the Americans prepared for a European tournament a few weeks later. These games – known as the North American Cup – would mark the first games on home soil for the Americans, and the first international matches ever played by the Canadian women.

Werner Fricker, then-president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, had recently hired North Carolina’s Anson Dorrance to coach the U.S. women’s national team, with one explicit goal: “be the dominant team in CONCACAF.”

The U.S. men hadn’t beaten the Canadians in more than a decade, and had missed out on the 1986 World Cup while the Canadians earned CONCACAF’s only available berth. So the federation was looking to the women’s team to make a statement, in just the second year of the team’s existence.

The games were played at the Blaine Soccer Complex in Blaine, Minnesota, the venue that would host every U.S. women’s national team home game until 1991 (and which later grew into the National Training Center).

Dorrance, who had already led the Tar Heels women’s team to three NCAA titles, embraced the challenge of a “walk into the unknown.” Bringing back some but not all of the original team from 1985 and adding several new players, Dorrance knew the talent he had, but had no way to scout Canada. “None of us knew how good anybody was … the first time I got a sense of how good Canada was, was in the first couple minutes of the first game. It was a brave new world for all of us.”

It was a very different landscape, too.

Canada brought together 22 players from its various provincial teams to prepare for its first international games. The players had just two days of practice in Winnipeg before the roster was trimmed to 16 players, and then they headed south on a 20-hour bus trip to Minnesota. Like their American counterparts, the Canadians understood these games represented an incredible opportunity, but also one with high expectations. Geraldine Donnelly, one of the 16 who traveled to Blaine and who would later captain Canada at two Women’s World Cups, knew that “if we didn’t do well, the program might not continue.”

Photo: Jen Cooper

Photo: Jen Cooper

The first match, on July 9, featured several American firsts — the first win (2-0) and shutout, the first cap for April Heinrichs, who would lead the team to its first Women’s World Cup title in 1991, and the first international goals for debutantes Marcia McDermott and Joan Dunlap-Seivold.

The second match, two days later, saw Canada earn its first win, as Donnelly scored both goals in the 2-1 victory, “one with my left and one with my right.” Donnelly remembers a scrappy play led to the first goal, which was assisted by Charmaine Hooper, who was for many years the Canadian record-holder for most goals and most caps. “We were just so damn happy to get the win,” Donnelly said, knowing that the future of Canadian women’s soccer was on their shoulders. On the same day, the two teams played the third match of the series, with the U.S. winning 2-1.

Looking back, Heinrichs feels that the two fledgling national teams became “partners for years in making each other better.” She may not recall many specifics about those first three games, but Heinrichs does remember “losing” two of her goals. The third match was later deemed unofficial, since it lasted only sixty minutes, and all the stats for that game were withdrawn from player records.

Five years and a few more friendlies later, the U.S. and Canada would meet in the first CONCACAF championship final for women, the game that would determine the one team that would qualify for the first Women’s World Cup (then known as the “FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football”). The United States beat Canada, 6-0 to qualify for the inaugural tournament in China, and later that year brought home the world championship trophy.

Donnelly notes that without the dominating performance by the Americans in that first Women’s World Cup, FIFA would not have allotted two spots for CONCACAF for the following tournament in 1995. That second slot gave Canada the opportunity to start carving out its own path in the international soccer landscape.

Canada reached the semifinals of the Women’s World Cup in 2003 -- its best finish -- before falling, 3-1 to the Americans in the third-place match. The teams have met twice in the Olympics, both times in a knockout game that went to extra time, and both times the Americans have edged the Canadians for the win.

More than 30 years have passed since those first games in 1986. Both teams now sit in the top five of the FIFA rankings, and while the U.S. has won over 80 percent of the meetings, Canada’s recent resurgence has reignited the rivalry.

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