"It was surreal": CanWNT sends off Christine Sinclair and Sophie Schmidt with night to remember in Vancouver
Throughout her storied international career, Christine Sinclair has never been one to show much emotion, no matter the occasion.
Even when she was winning an Olympic gold medal, or becoming the all-time leading international goalscorer, Sinclair never seemed to break from her trademark intensity, always reacting with the steely and competitive gaze that she’s known for.
But as she completed her swan song with the CanWNT at BC (Christine Sinclair) Place on Tuesday, even she got emotional from the festivities that were laid out for her to mark the occasion, as she represented her country for the 331st and final time.
The Canadian anthem hits a bit harder on days like this, and Christine Sinclair can attest to that as she gets set for her final #CanWNT/#CanXNT game— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) December 6, 2023
Great pre-game ceremony to honour her, Sophie Schmidt and Erin McLeod, too pic.twitter.com/pM7RhXxo3d
Up against Australia in front of a packed crowd of 48 112, most of whom were there to see her play for Canada for the final time, Sinclair made sure to soak in every moment, from the ceremony that was thrown for her and fellow retirees Sohpie Schmidt and Erin McLeod, to the huge ovation she got when she was withdrawn from the field for the final time, and everything else in between.
Never one to want to be in the spotlight, she made the most of it on the evening, enjoying it in typical Sinclair fashion - by enjoying the moment with her friends, family and teammates on the night.
“It was surreal, and the perfect ending,” she admitted to OneSoccer’s Oliver Platt after the game.
“This type of stuff, it’s not usually my favourite, but I promised myself to enjoy it, and it’s been overwhelming, to be on the field with my nieces for example, and for them to also experience this, it’s all been incredible.”
And you add in that she was able to cap the night off with a victory, too, allowing her to ride off into the sunset with a pair of wins against an Australian side that is just months removed from finishing fourth at the World Cup, and it doesn’t get much better than that for a competitor like Sinclair.
“I’m always a competitor, so I feel great,” she said with a smile. “We won the game, I’m super proud of the team, and this has been nuts, absolutely nuts.”
Yet, that’s why Canada’s big goal on the night was to send her off with a win like that.
Of course, in an ideal world, Sinclair would’ve ended things off with a hat trick or a great goal, but to her, as long as she got the win for her, Schmidt and the rest of her teammates, she would’ve been happy, no matter the circumstances in which they grabbed it, and those around her knew that.
“We wanted to get the win for them,” Canada’s head coach, Bev Priestman, admitted.
“It’s everything we could’ve hoped for to send off Christine, Sophie and Erin,” defender Vanessa Gilles added. “Just looking around and walking out, then seeing everybody that was emotional and touched just like we were as their teammates and friends was incredible, and was everything they deserved in their last game, along with the win and clean sheet.”
While everything on the night was focused on Sinclair, however, she didn’t change her approach for this game, as she made her final start for her country.
Her first start since the final game of the 2023 World Cup on July 31st, in which Canada was thumped 4-0 by Australia, she made sure to do everything in her power to get the win against that same Matildas side this time around.
On a day like this one, she would’ve had every excuse not to track back defensively, be a little more aggressive with her shot selection, and try to get on the ball a bit more in the final third, allowing her to go out with a bang.
Instead, however, she filled in selflessly up front. Much as she’s done over the last few years, where she’s evolved from a ruthless poacher to more of a box-to-box presence, sacrificing offence to help the team more, she didn’t stray from that approach in this game whatsoever.
As a result, she ended up creating two chances and won all three of the duels she contested on the night, generating just one shot for herself, showing her desire to help the team instead of sacrificing those responsibilities to try and cheat to get goal #191, extending her all-time record.
And for her teammates, that was huge to see.
When a player who has the list of accolades that Sinclair does and is willing to do the dirty work in a game meant to celebrate her? You just can’t help but drag yourself into the fight, and her teammates did just that, battling to get this win and clean sheet over the line in the end even after Sinclair exited for Schmidt in the 58th minute, in a move that Priestman later joked was a “sports science” decision to have Sinclair exit 12 minutes into the second half.
“I think that’s the humble Sinclair that we all know, right?,” Cloé Lacasse said. “Everyone knows it, as that's the legacy she's leaving behind. She's not just an extremely talented player, but she's a pioneer in this game.”
“I think she wanted an assist more than anything out here today, even though we wanted to give her a goal, she wanted the assist, and that just goes to show the character that she has.”
As a result, Canada seemed to work even harder to get the win once Sinclair was off, not wanting to waste the opportunity to do so, with Schmidt putting in a particularly impressive shift after having taken the armband from her longtime teammate and friend in that special handover, as she too made sure to finish off her career on a high note.
“As Christine Sinclair and Sophie Schmidt did in the last game in Victoria, they turned up, did their job, and made sure the team was tuned into that,” Priestman said of Schmidt and Sinclair’s performances.
Now, however, as Canada picks up the pieces from this special night, those performances stand out, as they also show what this Canadian team is going to have to replace now that Sinclair and Schmidt are gone.
Not only are they leaving a giant hole behind in terms of their skill sets, but they leave a big gap in the leadership department, too.
They might not be the loudest or ‘rah-rah’ pair of leaders, but as they showed in a game like this, they’ve always been willing to roll up their sleeves and get into the fight, no matter the occasion, leading by example in the biggest moments.
It might not seem like much, but for players as talented as they are, that can mean a lot to other players, especially seeing that they’re willing to battle and fight as if their spots on the roster are still up for grabs, even if they’ve got over 500 caps between them.
Yet, that’s why while replacing their skillsets may prove to be a big challenge on its own, that leadership void that they’re leaving behind might just be a bigger loss.
At the end of the day, Canada’s a talented team, and has players who can step up and try and fill those shoes long-term, so that should be no issue. But in terms of the leadership that they’ve brought to this team? That’s a different story.
Despite that, however, there is one silver lining, which is that their leadership has more than left its mark on this team. Having led by example for as long as they have, it’s made this group feel that they can all be leaders, something that they can continue to do even with their departures.
“Her leadership is huge,” defender Jade Rose said of Sinclair afterwards. “She’s the best captain that I've ever had the chance of playing with, and she’s always taught us that everyone is a leader in their own way, and that this team is not made up of just one captain and one leader, but that everyone has a leadership role on this team.”
That team buy-in is paying off, too. After a frustrating World Cup, where Canada exited the group stages with one win, one loss and one draw, they’ve looked like a new team as of late, having done well to hit the reset button after that tournament.
Armed with a new formation, different tactics and an old mentality, they’ve re-found their mojo as of late, winning five of their six post-World Cup games, all against World Cup opposition, doing so by a combined score of 12-2.
Plus, they’ve done so in exciting fashion, too, pressing high up the pitch, creating overloads in wide areas, all while building out of the back and playing on the front foot in possession.
And, most importantly, they’ve gotten their main defensive mindset back, which is to have a desire to win every ball, and to take pride in their defending.
A mentality with which they won the Olympics, they’ve strayed away from it at times this year, such as in uncharacteristic thrashings as the 4-0 one they received from Australia at the World Cup.
As seen in games like this one, though, where they allowed just six Australia shots (and none on target), it feels like that mentality back, which is why they’ve conceded just two goals in their last six games, and have kept three consecutive clean sheets for just the third time under Priestman.
Between all of the talk of their new-look attack and tactical identity, as well as Sinclair and Schmidt’s retirement, that’s flown under the radar, but is something that this Canadian team has quietly been pleased to see flourish as of late.
“Yeah, It's been the formation, but I also think we’ve gotten back to our behaviours,” Priestman said when asked about her team’s defensive turnaround. “Which is that no matter what the formation is, when the ball is given away, we apply pressure to win it back. That’s in our DNA, and it always has been. Reflecting on the World Cup, we lost our way defensively with everything that was going on, but it's back now. You can feel that the mindset to defend is there.”
“It’s in our DNA, and we need it as it’s a massive part of our identity, as how we defend is how we attack, so this gives us intensity in the attack and defence, so we celebrate clean sheets just like we do goals.”
Combined with their new formation, that has been a strong combination, much to the pleasure of the defenders.
“I think it's a great formation, it plays towards the strengths of our team,” Rose noted. “I think that we have a very athletic backline, so I think it plays to our strengths. We want to be a team that has bite, that gets up the pitch, that wins the ball up high, and I think that this back three formation is something that caters towards that.”
Strong end to 2023 for the #CanWNT/#CanXNT, as they pick up 2 wins vs Australia, and 3 wins in a row— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) December 6, 2023
They've also got 3 clean sheets in a row for just the 3rd time under Bev Priestman
They continue to look a lot better in attack with the 3421, without sacrificing defence
But while this Canadian team prepares to bring this new-look identity into a busy 2024, which includes a Gold Cup and an Olympics in the summer, make no mistake - they won’t be forgetting about this night, and what it means for this country, anytime soon.
It’s never easy to say goodbye, especially not to two legends, but Canada knows that Sinclair and Schmidt will always remain a special part of the program, and are still rooting for them from afar (Sinclair did say that she told them this week that she wants them to win the 2027 World Cup, after all).
So as this team gets set to tackle goals such as winning that World Cup, defending their Olympic gold medal next summer, chasing a trophy at the Gold Cup or something else of the like, they’ll do so while fuelled by the impact that Sinclair and Schmidt had on them across their careers.
Just take Quinn’s word for it, for example. Having capped off an excellent performance in midfield with what stood as the winning goal, their first thought after the game wasn’t about any of that, as they would’ve had the reason to do.
Instead, they immediately thought of what Sinclair said to them right after the goal, which was to thank them for scoring, given that it took some much-needed pressure off Sinclair and the rest of the team, and helped them eventually get the win.
A moment that Quinn will cherish for the rest of their career, it just serves as a reminder of the impact that someone like Sinclair has had on her teammates, staff, fans and more, and why this night was so special for everyone involved.
GOAL 🇨🇦#CanWNT go up 1-0 over Australia!— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) December 6, 2023
Quinn opens the scoring, getting their head on the end of a loose ball first flicked on by Christine Sinclair off a corner!
🔴 TUNE IN on OneSoccer pic.twitter.com/ctPVwDnGPA
And as the rest of her teammates begin a new journey without her, they’ll now look to carry that same mentality that she had going forward, all while cherishing the memories that they were able to share along the way, even if it’s something as simple as a thank you for a goal, just showing the impact that Sinclair and Schmidt are leaving behind.
“Sinclair saying “thanks for scoring”, that’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” Quinn reminisced after the game, beaming with an ear-to-ear grin, one that was common among the 48 000 plus in the stadium on the night.