GANGUE-RUZIC: Despite changing role, Christine Sinclair remains key to CanWNT
It was a special day for Christine Sinclair on Monday, as the Canadian icon celebrated her 40th birthday.
It's an important milestone for anyone, and an even bigger one for a professional athlete, as many don’t have the privilege to be playing at this point – and even fewer at the highest level like Sinclair does, as she continues to meet the sheer physical demand, mental strain and impact of a tiring schedule and still perform.
Sinclair is doing all that, and more. She might have to manage her minutes a lot more these days than she perhaps would have in the past, but the world’s all-time leading international goalscorer is still finding a way to have an impact on the field for both club and country. Despite a gruelling 2022 season where she played over 2,000 minutes across 30+ games for the Portland Thorns and the Canadian women's national team, she scored six goals and finished as an NWSL champion with Portland, and had two goals and one assist in 599 minutes for Canada.
The goat stays goated.
Even more impressively, she’s maintained that level of play into 2023, where she sits with two goals and two assists in 749 minutes across 12 games in all competitions for the Thorns.
Christine Sinclair with a banger 🔥— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) June 4, 2023
It was darby day in Seattle, and Sinclair has helped the Portland Thorns grab a crucial 2-0 road win over the OL Reign by nabbing the 2nd
Her 2nd of 2023, she hit this one sweetly
Great to see🐐#CanWNT/#CanXNTpic.twitter.com/wJs2DDR1Vg
Still a regular starter for the Thorns, she might not go the full 90 as much as she used to (she’s cracked 90 minutes just twice this season), but Sinclair is still making an impact on the pitch, helping her team sit third in league play and remain alive in the push for a Challenge Cup title.
That’s important to note for Canada, who themselves are getting set to play at the FIFA Women's World Cup later this summer. It'll be Sinclair’s sixth World Cup – likely her last (though who knows!) – and she remains the team captain, though with a bit of a different role for Canada than the starting one she's maintained through much of her 323 caps (and 190 goals) to date.
Having not completed a full 90 minutes for Canada since the 2021 Olympics, Sinclair has become more of a sporadic starter under head coach Bev Priestman, who has preferred to use Sinclair as either a 60-minute starter or a super sub.
Partly due to the reality of managing her minutes amidst her club demands, this change has also been a reflection of the new reality of women’s international soccer: It’s becoming stronger, faster, fitter and, inevitably, younger. As the standards of the top European leagues have improved, with it have come a swath of youth talent who bring immense quality, much of which has been forged at the highest levels of the game.
Canada’s seen that wave first-hand, as Ashley Lawrence (28), Kadeisha Buchanan (27), Vanessa Gilles (27), Jessie Fleming (25) and Julia Grosso (22) have all established themselves as regulars on title-winning powerhouses in Europe, while the likes of Deanne Rose (24), Jordyn Huitema (22) and Jayde Riviere (22) are all pushing towards joining them soon enough with their own impressive seasons.
Along with the play of Nichelle Prince (28), Kailen Sheridan (27) and Quinn (27) domestically in the NWSL, and players like Cloé Lacasse (29) thriving abroad, Canada has rapidly built up a strong core of 20-something players who enter this World Cup seemingly ready and definitely hungry to take another step forward.
Because of that, this isn’t the Canada of 2011 or 2015 or even 2019, where Canada was seen as Sinclair’s team, complete with some supporting pieces.
This is a team where the next generation has taken over and assumed the mantle as leaders, as they proved when they won the gold medal at the Olympics in 2021, and have continued to prove with solid, winning performances ever since.
So, while Sinclair continues to perform at the club level, her international role has naturally become one of the great mentor.
Genuinely... how lucky can we be to have her?
The question for so many years has been 'Who will be the next Christine Sinclair?' and seeing that aforementioned group of players, it turns out that the answer was right there in front of us, quietly forming together for a while now: There isn't one.
Even if they aren’t exact replacements for Sinclair (who is, really?), a more complete team has flourished before our very eyes.
Because of that, it’s imperative to acknowledge that shift, and enjoy what Sinclair can bring in this modified role this summer.
Sinclair's radar chart from 2023 with the Portland Thorns (749 minutes)
Given her status as a top player, Sinclair was often seen as the reason why Canada would win or lose a game, which often wasn't fair to her or her teammates. Now? This Canadian team has more leaders who can step up. It’s fitting in a sense that they won the Olympics off the back of Jessie Fleming stepping up as a clutch penalty taker, Julia Grosso starting a few of those games as a 20-year-old (and scoring the gold medal clinching PK), and Vanessa Gilles emerging as a rock at the back, among other big performances from across this roster.
This is a tight-knit side that does its best when the collective shines, and should be recognized as such.
But, at its heart, they carry Sinclair's legacy. That same work ethic, drive, quiet determination and (hopefully) ruthless efficiency in moments that matter that defined Sinclair as a player lives on in the collective now. It's a wonderful homage to an icon who has given everything and then some to this program, who has continued to fight and advocate for its growth, and who, despite all of her individual success, has always been a humble leader, never one to relish the attention when it fixates on her as it has on so many occasions – but also quick to point that spotlight on her teammates when they rightfully deserve it, even when snubbed on top player lists and award nominations and the like.
Make no mistake: Sinclair can and likely will still help Canada tremendously in their quest to win a first-ever World Cup, as they look to follow up their Olympic gold medal triumph in style. As she showed in 2022, she still has some magic in her boots when need be, something that Thorns opposition are often reminded of on a near-weekly basis, too.
There’s a reason why Sinclair has won five trophies with those Thorns since since the start of 2020.
Her role may have changed, but it’s a far more calculated one now. She might not score five goals this World Cup, but she’ll impact the game in different ways, which could be an immense help to Canada if used in the right situations.
Because of that, it’s important to enjoy it while we can at this World Cup, because there won’t be many other moments like it left in her illustrious career. One could conceivably see her play in next year’s Olympics should they qualify for them this fall, but it feels like one of these next two tournaments is likely Sinclair’s last dance internationally for the country.
Given everything she’s given to Canada, from her debut in 2000 to the legendary veteran she is today, a World Cup win would be a perfect cap on a truly iconic career for country. Hopefully she can bring out a final flurry of magic, rounding off the story of the unlikely footballer from Burnaby, British Columbia who became an all-time great in world football.