Still in 'Sinc' with soccer, scoring goals
On a warm midweek afternoon at Providence Park, a recovery day between strenuous training sessions for the Portland Thorns, most of the players are limited to off-field fitness work.
Given the effort that went into the buildup to and participation in the Women's World Cup, it should follow that Christine Sinclair would welcome an easy afternoon.
But Sinclair was in no mood for downtime.
"I'm still the type that always wants to do extra," she said, explaining that she asked to join Llndsey Horan and Olivia Moultrie for on-field training.
"They said no. I want to keep playing and keep training. It's up to (the coaches) to shut me down," she said.
Shutting down Christine Sinclair, called "Sinc" by teammates, has caused headaches for opposing coaches and players for two decades. She turned 36 in June, but is showing no signs of slowing down.
One of the best players in the history of her sport — and one of the greatest athletes to call Portland home — Sinclair is playing some of her best soccer at an age when her peers are long retired. One example: She's put seven shots on goal this season, and scored six goals.
Sinclair has always scored goals. Her 182 for Canada rank second to Abby Wambach's 185 on the all-time international goals list. Her 110 goals in 94 career games is the Portland Pilots' record. Her 46 goals for the Thorns rank second in the seven-year history of the NWSL.
But it was a shift out of the primary goal-scoring position that invigorated Sinclair a couple of years ago. Midway through the 2017 season — partly out of necessity, but mostly because of the passing ability the team saw from Sinclair — Thorns coach Mark Parsons shifted Sinclair from the striker (No. 9) position to that of a playmaking midfielder.
"We wanted more of Christine Sinclair," Parsons said. "So it's easy — bring her closer to where the majority of the game is."
Sinclair said she has improved as a result of the position shift, becoming a more complete player.
"For the longest time in my career, I was just a 9, give me a chance to score and I'll put it in the back of the net. I think with Mark, playing in a different role, it's helped develop my game and become more of a playmaker and just have more of an impact on the game."
The midfield position requires covering more territory and defensive responsibility, movement that might be more appealing to younger legs. But Sinclair is thriving.
"I've quite enjoyed it. I feel like Mark has allowed my career to take off again, and it's been exciting."
Initially, Parsons was hesitant about shifting Sinclair to midfield. He wanted to double the number of touches she got but feared that not having her near the goal would mean fewer goals for the Thorns.
"After a couple games, it was clear that we were getting more of Sinc in the box because she was running from midfield, and that's so hard to defend," Parsons said. "Defenders are trying to deal with No. 9s and now Christine Sinclair's coming late (into the penalty area). We realized we get more effective opportunities in the box."
An added benefit for Sinclair is more interaction on the field with Tobin Heath and Horan, a relationship that was on full display in Portland's 5-0 throttling of Houston on July 24. That was the first time since the World Cup the trio of stars had started together, and their excitement was clear during a 4-0 first half.
"At halftime, I walked up to both of them and said, 'I miss playing with you guys. It's easy,'" Sinclair said, pointing to her seven years as Heath's teammate with the Thorns and more than three years alongside Horan as contributing to their chemistry.
"We love to play, and I think we understand the game and we've grown over these years," Sinclair said. "We just have fun."
The opportunity to play for the Thorns is a highlight of a career filled with them. Sinclair has considered Portland home since she arrived at the University of Portland in the summer of 2000. Most of her family still lives in the Vancouver, British Columbia area, but her aunt and uncle (Brian Gant, who played for the Timbers in the North American Soccer League era and later taught and coached at Catlin Gabel) are longtime Portland-area residents.
"Complete soccer city," she said of what she likes about life in Portland. "I like that it's smaller, it's close to Vancouver, which is perfect for me cause I can go home pretty much whenever I want."
Sinclair was a day away from flying to Paris to join power club Paris Saint Germain when she began to hear whispers that the NWSL was in the works and Portland would be one of the cities with a team. She canceled her plans.
"I took the chance that it was going to happen," she said. "There's no way I could be in Europe playing knowing there's a team in Portland. So I didn't have to go."
From her days with the Pilots, Sinclair knew the NWSL could thrive in Portland.
"I don't think anyone really expected the (attendance) numbers, but you knew that we were going to be the most supported team in the league," Sinclair said. "I remember warming up for my first home game and the 'Riveters' were all there. It was just 'Wow.'
"It's been incredible."
Sinclair played three seasons in Women's Pro Soccer, helping FC Gold Pride (2010) and the Western New York Flash (2011) to league titles.
The NWSL is in its seventh season, and "in a decent place," according to Sinclair, though she sees a lot of room for improvement.
"I still think there's a ways to go in every organization," she said, calling the discrepancy between clubs such as the Thorns and some that lack adequate resources to properly support players "hard."
"As a Canadian, I'd love to see it expand into Canada. I think it makes sense," she said.
Sinclair was 16 when she debut for Canada's national team. The recent World Cup in France was her fifth. She dealt with the disappointment of Canada's loss to Sweden in the round of 16 the only way she knows how — by getting back to work for the Thorns.
"I don't think I've fully processed it yet," Sinclair said of Canada's earlier-than-hoped elimination in France. "For me, it was nice to be able to come back to this environment and immediately start playing again. I think that's what I needed."
Despite the disappointing result, Sinclair is proud of Canada's play in France, where she had one goal in four games.
"We lost a couple games that, based on the play, we shouldn't have lost. But that's the World Cup for you. To see Holland make it all the way to the final, knowing that we could have beaten them, that's the hard part."
Canada went to France believing it could compete for the World Cup title. Sinclair noted that Germany and France were among the countries who left disappointed.
"That's the beauty of women's football right now," Sinclair said. "There are more and more teams capable of winning tournaments like the World Cup and the Olympics. Look at the last Olympics — the U.S. didn't even get a medal and then they go and win a World Cup. The parity is increasing every year. You need a little luck on your side and some bounces to go your way, and that didn't happen for us."
As for the possibility of playing in a sixth World. Cup in 2023, Sinclair said she hasn't thought about it — yet.
"I'm thinking about tomorrow and what I'm going to do for dinner tonight. If anything, with the national team (the focus is) the Olympics and Olympic qualifiers and then we'll go from there."
Asked her opinion about the U.S. national team's battle for equal pay, Sinclair said: "I think it's the same for all federations. It's a fight, and the women absolutely deserve everything that the men get. I think each federation and team has their own battle."
In her mid-30s, Sinclair said life as a soccer professional is easier than when she was younger.
"I've learned so much about myself," she said. "What I need to do to be ready. What I need to do in the offseason to be ready. What I don't need to do in the offseason. When for me is the time to put in extra work. When it is time for me to sort of do the minimum that the coach asks of you."
Away from the game, watching soccer is one of the way Sinclair "chills."
"I watch it whenever it's on," she said.
Sinclair is a big fan of Liverpool. Growing up in a family of Manchester United fans, she isn't sure how Liverpool became her team, but perhaps it was because former Liverpool star Steven Gerrard was her favorite player.
Sinclair has thought about life after her playing days. Perhaps she will remain in soccer. She has given that future some thought, but if she has a plan in mind she isn't ready to say what it is.
No surprise there. Sinclair prefers to let her play speak. That's also true of her role as Thorns captain. For Parsons, Sinclair is the ultimate example for her teammates.
As an example, he pointed to an 89th-minute play on July 24, with Portland up 5-0 on Houston. Sinclair chased down Sophie Huerta from behind, made a successful tackle, then got up and delivered a simple pass to Heath that led to a scoring chance.
"She'll never be an extrovert, but even though it's not her personality she is starting to lead a bit more. She does it in powerful ways," Parsons said, explaining that a lot of Sinclair's leadership is in quiet individual discussions with teammates.
"She doesn't talk often. But when she does, it's powerful and it's important," the coach said. "She's been a bit more outgoing and proactive. I think that's been a big part of her development that she's owned. It has nothing to do with me."
Right now, Sinclair's focus is on leading the Thorns' pursuit of a third NWSL title. She is excited about the chase.
"You look at our roster, you look at the starting 11 that Mark is able to put out there, then you look at our bench and the people that aren't dressing — we have a very talented team," Sinclair said. "You put footballers on the field, I look at Tobin and I look at Lindsey and myself, we just love the game."
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