Canada’s humble star Sinclair gets pushed into spotlight

CARSON, Calif. (AP) — Christine Sinclair says she’s sorry she hasn’t gotten back to all the well-wishers who reached out after she set the international goals record.

Canada’s veteran striker didn’t get much time to celebrate or reflect last week after she scored a pair of goals in an Olympic qualifying tournament match.

For Sinclair, there’s a bigger task at hand at the moment — leading Canada back to the Olympics.

Canada is among the teams that will play Friday in Carson, California, in the semifinals of the CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying tournament. Canada won its group and will face Costa Rica, while runner-up Mexico will face the defending World Cup champion U.S. team.

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The winners Friday will earn the region’s two berths in this summer’s Tokyo Games. The championship match is Sunday.

Sinclair, 36, has 186 career goals, now an ongoing record after she passed American Abby Wambach’s previous mark (184) among men and women last week.

The accolades flooded in from an array of admirers, from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to former NBA guard Steve Nash to tennis great Billie Jean King. Nike designed a special pair of Canadian red soccer cleats, complete with maple leaf accents. FIFA President Gianni Infantino penned a congratulatory letter. And of course, Wambach sent Sinclair a video tribute.

“I still have people to get back to, I hope they understand. I’ll get back to them over the next couple of days,” she said. “A big thank you to everyone that reached out, I’ll get back to you, I promise.”

It was a lot of attention for the soft-spoken Sinclair, who famously prefers staying out of the spotlight.

Canada coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller said part of the reason Sinclair is so effective is that she’s unassuming on the field, too.

“You don’t really notice her too much until she puts it in the back of the net. If you go to some of our (training) sessions you can see how hard she is working to be that unnoticeable player that puts a good shift in and then all of a sudden, turns up in the penalty area,” Heiner-Moller said. “I think a big part of our success, her success, our team’s success has been that she’s had a lot of our last touches that she puts in the back of the net, but if you count her assists, you’ll see that she is a major key to Canada’s national team and our success.”

Sinclair is probably America’s best-known non-U.S. women’s soccer player. She was on the University of Portland’s two NCAA championship teams and has played since 2013 for the Portland Thorns of the National Women’s Soccer League.

She’s widely known in Canada. She’s been a standout on the Canadian national team since 2000, when she led it with three goals in the annual Algarve Cup tournament in Portugal. She’s a veteran of five World Cups and three Olympics.

Canada surpassed expectations with a bronze medal at the 2012 London Games. Sinclair set a record with six goals in the tournament, including three goals in a heartbreaking 4-3 semifinal loss to the eventual gold medalist U.S., to win the tournament’s Golden Boot.

Four years later in Brazil, the Canadians captured the bronze again by defeating the home country. Afterward, it was revealed that Sinclair had lost her father just a few months before the tournament. Intensely private, she hadn’t spoken about it.

Canada was knocked out of last summer’s World Cup in the round of 16 after making the semifinals in 2015 — when Canada hosted the event.

Along the way, the goals kept coming.

“It was probably about two years ago when I thought, I’m healthy, the team’s doing really well, that I started to realize, `Wow this actually might happen — unless I go into a massive slump, which happens for a striker,'” she said after breaking Wambach’s record. “But yeah, I’d probably say about two years ago that it started to hit me that this was something that was possible and might happen.”

Sinclair said the attention she received is indicative of how far women’s soccer has come since she was a fresh-faced newcomer on the national team 20 years ago.

She feels a responsibility to be an ambassador for the sport that has given her so much.

“For me, the biggest thing has been the opportunities that are now available for female soccer players. I think for the longest time, especially in North America, you went to college and that was it. And professional leagues have come and gone. But now there’s opportunities, all over Europe, the NWSL, Asia,” she said. “It’s obviously nowhere near being on par with the men’s game, but it’s growing and evolving in the right direction. And just to have been a small part of that is very special.”

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