MANCHESTER, United Kingdom - Canada's women's soccer team was 10 minutes away from celebrating what would have been the biggest victory in the history of the program, an upset of huge proportions that would have guaranteed an Olympic medal.
Instead, the Canadians were left feeling robbed in a 4-3 extra-time semifinal loss to the United States on Monday that they believe was decided by the officials.
And long after the 26,630 fans had filed out of Old Trafford, and the Americans had departed for the dressing room, the Canadian players sat on the lush, green pitch hanging their heads in disbelief.
"We feel like we didn't lose, we feel like it was taken from us," said captain Christine Sinclair, moments after laying down the finest performance of her career. "It's a shame in a game like that that was so important, the ref decided the result before it started."
Manchester United's storied stadium Old Trafford might be known as the "Theatre of Dreams," but Monday it was the stage for the Canadian team's worst nightmare.
Alex Morgan scored in the 123rd minute Monday to lead the No. 1-ranked United States over Canada, delivering a dagger in the heart of a squad that had paced the Americans goal for goal all night long.
Sinclair recorded a hat trick — goals No. 141 through 143 of her illustrious career — but was quietly seething after a result that relegated them to Thursday's bronze-medal game against France.
In fact, every one of the Canadians was seething.
"I just don't think any of us could believe what happened, that's why we didn't leave (the field) probably," said Melissa Tancredi, her lip quivering as she tried to fight off the tears. "I just didn't want to leave because I just couldn't believe that's what happened. That was our game, that was our win to have. And it was just taken away."
The controversy stemmed from a call against Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod that led to Abby Wambach's game-tying penalty in the 80th minute. McLeod was whistled for handling the ball for longer than six seconds, the Americans were awarded a free kick inside the box which bounced off the arm of defender Marie-Eve Nault, resulting in the penalty shot.
McLeod said Norwegian referee Christiana Pedersen told her that she had held the ball for 10 seconds.
"Not even close," McLeod replied.
It's a rule that none of the Canadian players, nor coach John Herdman, nor even American coach Pia Sundhage, had ever seen enforced.
Sinclair pleaded with Pedersen to reconsider.
"She actually giggled and said nothing," Sinclair said. "Classy."
Tancredi, the team's bruising forward who has four goals in the Games, had a few choice words for Pedersen after the penalty.
"I said, 'I hope you can sleep tonight and put on your American jersey because that's who you played for today.' I was honest," Tancredi said.
Herdman was equally livid.
"She'll have to sleep in bed tonight after watching the replays, she's got that to live with," he said. "We'll move on from this, I wonder if she'll be able to."
The Canadians were also upset with what they feel was a missed Megan Rapinoe handball in the American penalty area earlier in the second half.
The Canadians battle France on Thursday in Coventry, while the U.S. will battle Japan, 2-1 winners over the French, in the other semifinal.
Canada will still play for its first medal in Olympic soccer history, and what would be the country's first Summer Games medal in a traditional team sport — not counting rowing or equestrian — since 1936.
But as they filed out of the locker-room one by one and onto the team bus Monday night, their heads down, eyes red, they clearly weren't thinking about bronze possibilities.
Herdman, hired last fall after Canada's disastrous last-place result at the women's World Cup, paused to fight off tears before talking about how proud he was of his players.
"They got kicked, they got up, they kicked back, and that's what bites you, what more could you have asked, and what more could you have done?" Herdman said. "The emotion is more that you feel a little bit like it was taken from you, there was something there that was taken.
"I think if the U.S. were honest, they know they got lucky tonight in many ways, and that's what hurts the most."
Herdman, a Newcastle native who BBC announcers have affectionately been calling "Geordie John," bristled when asked to explain how the Americans got lucky.
"Do I have to answer that?" he said. "Go watch the replay. That will be replayed for the next 10 years in Canadian history."
Playing in what she called the "most intense game" of her career, Sinclair notched her first goal in the 22nd minute when she collected a nice chip from Tancredi, cutting to the right past American defender Kelley O'Hara before firing the ball low and hard past American goalkeeper Hope Solo.
The two teams would trade goals in rapid-fire succession for the rest of the night, keeping the crowd in the storied stadium on the edge of its seat.
Rapinoe scored her first of two in the 54th minute on a corner kick that went straight in through the legs of Lauren Sesselmann — who was parked on the near post — and past McLeod.
Sinclair's second came in the 67th minute off a header from Tancredi that she launched perfectly into the far corner.
Rapinoe replied three minutes later, firing a shot from just inside the 18-yard box.
But Sinclair — playing with a steely glare all night long — collected her third in the 73rd minute, a header off a corner kick from Sophie Schmidt.
"Christine, to come and score a hat trick in a semifinal of an Olympic Games against our biggest rivals and not to come away with something. . . there something that isn't right about it," Herdman said.
With the possibility of penalty kicks looming large, Morgan rose to meet a cross from Rapinoe and deftly placed a header past McLeod, continuing Canada's eleven years of heartache at the hands of the four-time Olympic champions. Canada hasn't beaten its North American rival since 2001 — a span of 27 games.
The Canadians said they're not worried about bouncing back for the bronze-medal match.
"We came here for a medal, it may not be the colour we want, but I don't think I'd want to be the team that has to play us next," Sinclair said.
Herdman said the vision of the team has been the Olympic podium since he was hired last fall, and reminded his distraught players of that fact in the post-game locker-room.
"They're desperate to see the flag rise," the coach said. "I don't think it's going to be that hard (to refocus). They're devastated now, you've got to give them that time to mourn this. . . but there's no dishonour in how they played. They gave everything, that level of connectivity will put them through."
The Canadians were eliminated by the U.S. in their Olympic debut four years ago in Beijing, losing 2-1 in the quarter-finals in a game that also went to extra time.
Their thrilling ride through the Summer Olympics comes just a year after the team was in total disarray, finishing 16th of 16 teams at the women's World Cup that led to Herdman's hiring.
The Americans had dominated their opponents in their run to the Olympic semis, going undefeated and allowing just two goals, while Canada went 2-1-1, defeating Great Britain 2-0 to book their spot in the semis.
Herdman had complained just a day earlier about the U.S. using "highly illegal tactics" with their physical play on set pieces. But on a night of two heavyweights slugging it out, the Canadians doled out as many bruising tackles as they took.
A woman selling programs hollered "It's marvellous Monday!" outside Old Trafford, the old stadium that has historical significance seemingly built into every pillar and brick.
Fans posed in front of the statue of United's "holy trinity" of George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton. They snapped pictures of the memorial for the eight players killed in the 1958 Munich plane crash. The passage under the south stand is named the "Munich Tunnel." The stadium itself is situated on Sir Matt Busby Way.
Even the Canadian players themselves wandered onto the pitch to take pictures when they unloaded from the team bus.
Old Trafford, the second largest soccer stadium in England, has been home to Manchester United since 1910 — save for a span from 1941-'49 when the stadium was damaged from bombing during the Second World War.
It had never hosted international women's soccer before the London Olympics.