With a quiet and constant presence, Christine Sinclair once again leads Thorns to playoffs
Here are the things you need to know about Christine Sinclair
Christine Sinclair during the final regular season match for Portland Thorns FC. (Photo credit: Craig Mitchelldyer/isiphotos.com)
Christine Sinclair during the final regular season match for Portland Thorns FC. (Photo credit: Craig Mitchelldyer/isiphotos.com)

By Katelyn Best

PORTLAND, Ore. – “Everybody pretty much knows everything about Sinc,” says Tobin Heath, when asked about Portland Thorns FC teammate Christine Sinclair.

It’s only a half-serious answer, but on several levels, it’s true. There are the hard facts: that the 34-year-old Sinclair, in her fifth year with Portland, is the team’s leading scorer this season. That only one player in history, on either side of the gender divide, has ever scored more international goals than her. That she’s been one of the very best in the world for a very long time. Everybody knows these facts.

Then, there are the impressions you get if you spend any time following the Thorns: that she’s reluctant to talk about herself, leads by example, and is humble to a fault. That she’s the quiet, composed veteran at the dead center of the team.

All of that is true. What everybody should know, and what’s often, ironically, overlooked, is just how true it all is—that Sinclair is exactly the player and the professional her record speaks to.

This is the first thing everybody should know about Sinclair: she’s so good, and so consistent, that too often, she’s only noticed when she drops off from her usual level. While Heath is the fan favorite here (at halftime against Chicago, when the Thorns emerged to warm up, one could tell she was on the field by the sound alone), and younger players like Hayley Raso have filled highlight reels this season, Sinclair is simply there, always hard at work, always doing her job exactly as it should be done.

“Sincy is just an all-around amazing professional who does all the basics to a really world-class, high level,” says Portland head coach Mark Parsons. “Because she does the basics to a really high level, consistently, all the time, she could get us into the final third five times, she could get three shots on target, picking the right space to hit the ball because of the goalkeeper and the defenders, and not score—and Raso could break through on a dribble and hit a cross that goes in, and we’re only going to remember that.”

Parsons gives an object lesson in what he means about doing the basics to a world-class level. “Watch here,” he says, pointing to a pair of players, one hitting in crosses, the other one shooting. Training is over, there’s been a break in the rain, and the mood is light. The shooter takes a swing at a cross and it goes over the bar. “There! I’m not saying that because she missed. But she’s just trying to kick it at the goal.”

Sinclair’s mindset is different, he says. “Every repetition, every time, she’s trying to strike the ball the best way possible… What Sincy would have been doing right there is approaching and going, ‘right, the ball’s coming down, I have to keep this down low,’ and she might have missed, but she knows the right thing. It’s not flashy, but that’s where she makes us so great.”

This is the next thing everybody should know about Sinclair: on the field, the whole Thorns project largely turns around the Canadian captain, who’s been in and out of the Rose City since her days at the University of Portland (“I never left, really,” she says). That’s rarely been more tangibly true than this season, when there’s been a straight line between the Thorns’ form and her level of involvement on the field.

For the first half of the 2017 season, Parsons deployed her as a lone striker, an approach based on the assumption Heath and Nadia Nadim would be able to create out wide and serve her balls in the attacking third. But with Heath out with a back injury until mid-September, and Nadim away at the 2017 Euro for a sizable chunk of the season, adjustments had to be made.

“Sometimes as an out-and-out nine,” Sinclair says, “you get kind of isolated. You’re relying on your team to get you the ball. I think I have more to offer than just that.”

On July 15, against North Carolina, Parsons moved Sinclair into a deeper position. “It’s a role I’ve played on and off with the national team for the last couple years,” she notes. Although the change didn’t show up on the stat sheet, the difference was immediate. When she was on the ball, Courage players like Sam Mewis and McCall Zerboni would step in to pressure her, and she’d use her strength and vision to distribute into the space they’d left open.

“We weren’t getting into the final third enough,” Parsons explains. With Sinclair playing more as a number ten, she acts as the link between the midfield and speedy forwards like Raso. That link goes both ways, though. “Once we’re in wider areas, she can now break in from deep. She can play-make, and she can get still into the box and score goals.”

Against Boston on September 10, in a demonstration of that dynamic, Raso assisted Sinclair’s game-winning goal, shaking off the Boston Breakers centerbacks to lay the ball back for the captain. “She’s still up there,” says Raso. “She’s still in the forward line, she’s still in front of goal, playing alongside a lot of us and bouncing passes with me.”

The Thorns were 5-4-4 (W-L-D) before the formation change; since then, they’re 9-1-1. In short, as Sinclair’s form has gone this year, so has Portland’s.

The last thing everybody should know about Sinclair is this: her influence in Portland goes far beyond what she does on the field. She’s the team’s longtime leader in a much bigger sense than simply wearing the armband.

“What we’re trying to do as a team culture,” Parsons says, “is what Sinc is all about. Put the team first, be your best every day, and find a way to get the job done.” With Sinclair, those admonitions aren’t mere clichés, but real facets of her personality. And as one of just three remaining players from Portland’s inaugural season—the other two are Heath and Allie Long—she’s an anchor that Parsons has tried to build his version of the Thorns around.

“It’s definitely special,” Heath says of the trio. “It’s us passing on the culture to the younger players. We obviously take a lot of pride in the city and representing the city to the best of our abilities.”

It’s difficult, though, to get Sinclair to admit how important she is to the team. “I’m not,” she says, “one of those ‘rah-rah’ captains. I’m never going to be that loud one who wants to speak up in front of everyone all the time.”

“Sincy speaks only when she needs to,” says Parsons. “It’s very short and sweet, and when she does, it’s the most powerful thing anyone’s said that week or month.” He remembers a difficult multi-game road trip early in the season, when she stepped up to keep the team focused. “We’d had a rough one in Kansas [City]. We were getting a little itchy with each other. Sincy identified that we needed to come a little closer, and we were going to use this long trip on the road to do that, and she started organizing card games and things… She’s made sure we stayed on track. The players have followed that.”

If there’s anything genuinely surprising about Sinclair, it’s this: for an athlete who’s been one of the best in the world for as long as many fans can remember, she truly doesn’t seem to realize, herself, how singular she is as a player.

Parsons says he’s seen a shift in her leadership style in the last year, which Sinclair attributes to Canada manager John Herdman. When Herdman took over, she says, “he sort of made me see things I’d never seen before. Part of that was my ability to lead, and how players—I don’t know why—respect me.”

Looking forward to the semifinal, she’s equally understated. “I think we’re in a good place,” she says. “We’ve been playing pretty well. We haven’t been beaten in a long time, especially here at home. We’re peaking at the right time.”

Heath says about Sinclair what she’d never admit for herself. “This is her team,” she says. “We all kind of fall back behind her and let her lead the way.”

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