After a week that brought a new term, individualized training, into the North American soccer consciousness, we may not have needed reminders of how much the sports world has changed. But in her first media availability since precautions for the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, Portland Thorns FC captain Christine Sinclair was asked about a piece of soccer history which, in her words, now “seems like a different world ago.”
Sinclair is the leading goalscorer in international soccer history, an honor she earned on January 29 when her two goals in CONCACAF Olympic qualifying against St. Kitts and Nevis took her career total to 185. Now sitting on 186, she owns a record that was the property of United States star Mia Hamm at the beginning of Sinclair’s career; was in the hands of another U.S. icon, Abby Wambach, when Sinclair ascended to number one.
Yet because of the timing for her record within the National Women’s Soccer League calendar, Sinclair, a Canadian who calls Portland home, hadn’t had a media session with her hometown press since setting her new mark. Now back to training at Providence Park, Sinclair conducted a Tuesday video call with that press, where perspective on her record came into focus.
“You know, I’m not going to lie: [The record is] not something I spent too much time thinking about,” she confessed, shortly after the topic was originally broached. “Even today, Nadine [Angerer], our goalkeeping coach, was like, ‘You broke the record.’ I was like, ‘What record?’ It didn’t even dawn on me what she was telling me.”
The interaction was typical of Angerer and Sinclair’s dynamic. It also reflected an attitude which, for those who have followed Sinclair’s career, falls in line with how she’s conducted herself since her first international goal in 2000. Though she deserves a place in any conversation of soccer’s best ever, Sinclair’s not one who wants to carry that message forward.
“I was grateful to get [the record] out of the way, and I mean that in the best possible way,” she conceded. “Like [break the record] in the first game of our Olympic qualifying tournament. Just because I didn’t want it to be a stress for the team. I wanted our team to be able to focus on qualifying, not me getting a few goals.
“Obviously, we had no idea this was going to happen: this pandemic. So yes, I’m very grateful that it was out of the way before this all started. Because who knows when we’ll play again.”
The thought hints at a hypothetical which, relative to sports, is frightening to consider, now. What if, for some reason, Sinclair hadn’t broken the record in January? What if her pursuit of Wambach lingered until March, when the NWSL preseason was supposed to begin in full? What if today’s media availability came with the record still in doubt, and no kickoffs in the near future?
In that world, Sinclair would still be carrying the burdens of her pursuit, burdens she hinted at on Tuesday.
“It was stressful,” she said, of her time chasing the record. “Especially with the national team, you play one game and you don’t have another game for four months, three months – whatever the case may be. You have to sit with that for those three months, which is a lot.”
“That record had been weighing on me for probably about a year and a half as the goals were ticking away,” she explained. “You start to realize, ‘if I stay healthy, it’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of when.’ But it was a lot.”
The countdown to that year and a half began 20 years ago, when her first goals as a senior international came at 2000’s Algarve Cup. She finished second in goals during that tournament, even on the scoring charts with two legends of the game: China’s Sun Wen and the United States’ Cindy Cone (nee, Parlow).
Even in those early moments, greatness was in her thoughts.
“I looked at what Mia had at that time, and it was like 150-something goals,” she recalled. “Two thoughts crossed my mind: ‘I’m going to beat Mia,’ was one; the next was, ‘Oh my God, that’s a lot of goals. That’s a lot of games, years on the national team. But why not? Let’s go for it?’”
Twenty years later, the question has shifted from when she’ll claim the record to where she will leave it – and, within the changing landscape of the women’s game, whether anybody could possibly catch her. Still, much like reaching her long-time goal, the record’s final place is something she rarely thinks about now.
“I’m pretty proud of [the record],” she admits, “but I think it is something that, when I’m done playing, I’ll look back on more.”