VANCOUVER, B.C.—When someone says "Canadian superstar athlete", the first image that comes to mind is likely that of a hockey legend like Wayne Gretzky or Sidney Crosby. One of the top stars Canada currently has in any sport plays women's soccer, though, and Christine Sinclair put on a pantheonic performance Thursday night at B.C. Place, scoring four goals, setting up another one and leading the Canadian team to a 6-0 thumping of Haiti. Sure, the degree of difficulty was low, and sure, there will be stiffer challenges ahead, but Sinclair seized the spotlight Thursday and reminded the world she's still one of the top players out there.
When asked about Sinclair's performance after the match, Canadian head coach John Herdman paused and then deadpanned, "It wasn't very good, was it?" He then got right to the point.
"She's outstanding," Herdman said. "I think certain players just rise to the occasion."
It was quite the occasion, too. It's been a long while since Canada's hosted a major women's soccer tournament. One of the most notable previous ones was the 2002 FIFA U-19 Championship, and Sinclair dominated that, scoring a tournament-high 10 goals, taking home the tournament MVP award and leading Canada on a run to the final. A decade later, here she is again, starring at a major tournament on home soil. Sinclair's as much the face of the Canadian women's team as ever, perhaps even more so than usual after her display of courage to play through a broken nose at the Women's World Cup last summer and her flag-bearing duties at the Pan Am Games last fall. Yet, as Herdman said, she certainly didn't wilt under the pressure.
"Christine is a very confident woman," he said. "She can do it under any pressure, under any circumstances."
This game was well in hand soon after Canada's first goal in the seventh minute, where Sinclair set up Christina Julien for an easy tap-in. Sinclair then added four of her own, scoring in the 25th, 43rd and 55th minutes and converting a penalty kick in the 85th before Kelly Parker finished off the scoring in stoppage time. With Canada so dominant, Herdman was asked if he'd considered taking Sinclair out to prevent injury, and his response tells you a lot about her mentality.
"She won't come off," he said. "She's one of those players who just wants to be playing."
It was a bit of an unusual evening for Sinclair from a tactical perspective. Normally, she tends to play as a forward; Thursday, Herdman had her drop into an attacking midfield role. It worked out perfectly, with Sinclair slipping through cracks in the defence and both scoring and setting other Canadians up. Many see Sinclair mostly as a scorer, and her total of 124 international goals at the senior level (second only to the U.S.'s Abby Wambach, who's three years older than the 28-year-old Sinclair and has just one more goal) indicates they're not wrong, but her playmaking abilities were on full display Thursday as well. Herdman said that kind of role for Sinclair is something we may see more of as the tournament progresses.
"She sinks readily in that role and she's really enjoying it," Herdman said. "She's a provider, she doesn't usually put a pass wrong. Players like Julien, [Melissa] Tancredi and [Chelsea] Buckland can really thrive off Sinclair, but she also scored four goals as well from a deeper position. I think that's the beauty with it; we can start with her in a deeper position and rotate that role so she ends up in front, just keep them guessing. I think Christine's reveling in that."
Canadian keeper Karina LeBlanc said Sinclair demonstrated her versatility.
"She was phenomenal," LeBlanc said. "She's a complete player, and she showed that tonight."
What's clear from watching Sinclair, who's been named the Canadian women's player of the year every year for the last seven years and has been nominated for FIFA's World Player of the Year award five times, is that a lot of her dominance comes from her ability to read the field, much like a Gretzky or a Crosby does on the ice. That was brilliantly evident on Sinclair's third goal, the prettiest of the lot. She managed to slip through a crack in the defence and screamed for a pass; Melissa Tancredi delivered a superb long ball from the halfway line that went off the head of Haitian defender Fiorda Charles and fell right to Sinclair, who drove it home from close range almost instantly. The whole play came from incredible vision; Sinclair saw the opening, knew Tancredi could get the ball there and then perfectly executed the finish. Afterwards, she had a tough time describing it, but she maintained it was very much intentional. When asked what happened there, she responded, "I'm not sure!", but then talked about seeing the hole in the defence and calling for the ball. "I'm like, 'Tank!', and she just kicked it over."
The official attendance was 7,627, which felt very small in the cavernous B.C. Place, but the fans who were there were incredibly into it; many were on their feet throughout, singing and chanting for Sinclair and Canada. She said their efforts went anything but unnoticed.
"The crowd was great," she said. "It's nice to play these important games in front of a home crowd that's cheering for you, not against you."
With so much offence coming from Sinclair Thursday, some coaches might be worried that their team's too focused on a single superstar, but not Herdman. He said what was impressive was the way Sinclair and her teammates ran the offence, never letting the ball sit idle and seemingly playing their own game of tic-tac-toe before taking the final shot.
"What was really cool tonight was that it was really fluid," he said. "Sinclair was as she usually is, in the right place at the right time."
That's certainly true about Thursday night, but it could extend to the tournament as a whole. For Canadian women's soccer, this sure looks like the right location and the right moment to live up to their tremendous potential, and if anyone's going to be there to answer the call, it's a good bet it will be Sinclair. After all, Canada's superstar is always there in the right place at the right time.