For Thorns FC's Christine Sinclair, the record is broken but her presence endures

Christine Sinclair, Canada vs. St. Kitts, 1.29.20

Thorns FC's Christine Sinclair never ran from the questions, but the way she answered queries about her coming scoring record made you wonder: How would she want to set the mark?

Whether the longtime Canada women's national team attacker would become the leading scorer in international soccer history was no longer in doubt. Only something unforeseen could keep it from her. But for a person who so carefully manages the lines between fame and normalcy, public and private, stardom and modesty, it was uncomfortable imagining ticker tape, horns, a platform for attention being erected in the middle of her sanctuary: the soccer field. If she wasn’t already, she would, one day, be the greatest ever, but is that how she’d want to celebrate her mark?

It felt like Sinclair would rather get it out of the way. If it could happen without anybody noticing, even better. She knew the record is important – it would be disrespectful to be too selfish; to not acknowledge its value – but all the pomp and circumstance? It seemed separate from the achievement itself. Couldn’t we all agree this was important but not break out the trumpets?

"I remember at the time it was Mia Hamm's record and thinking, 'That's impossible. Nobody is going to get near that,'" Sinclair told the CBC about her memories of the mark after scoring her first international goal, admitting the record’s arrival would be a “relief,” when asked about it early in 2019. The sentiment is quintessential “Sinc.” She managed to talk about something without talking about herself.

It’s why setting the record in shadows felt right. For some, a region’s qualifying tournament for the Olympics is the light, but it’s the same light that has been ignored for years, relegated to deep cable, when the games were broadcast at all. They’re the games that have served as credentialing for the dense fanbase that’s pushed women’s soccer, but they’ve also been events that have left Sinclair’s rise to go largely overlooked.

But those shadows also allowed her to share the moment with the people she valued most: her teammates. True, today, Canada’s match – an 11-0 win over St. Kitts & Nevis in Concacaf Olympic Qualifying in which Sinclair scored a first-half brace – garnered more attention than it otherwise would have, but these games were relegated to Edinburg, Texas, for a reason. There was no rush of international media to the home of the USL’s Rio Grande Valley FC Toros. No involved in-game spectacle, or drawn-out post-match commitments. She did it. It was special. Now, back to the tournament.

For those of us who’ve followed her journey – and by “us,” I mean the entire sport – the moment is still worth a greater pause. Things changed today, in a very meaningful way. The game will go on as it did before, but within it, our expectations have moved. The bar is higher, now, and will climb even more as the rest of Sinclair’s career unfolds. Yet the lens through which we view talent, programs, the international landscape shifts, even if Sinclair’s longevity has made those changes so subtle. The discussions we’ll have around greatness have taken on a new tone – one they should have had all along.

How many best ever debates do you hear center around Christine Sinclair? If you’re a hardcore women’s soccer fan, you’ll snap: “A lot!” But think back to June and July, and the broadcasts we heard during the World Cup. You remember features on Marta and Sam Kerr. Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd? We know why. But also think about the casual references you hear on FOX telecasts, European league streams, or W-League productions when it comes to icons: the references are often Mia, Marta, maybe Abby or even Alex. Just as too few over the last decades mentioned Michelle (Akers), too few will make Sinclair the benchmark.

Part of the reason will be Sinclair’s path, one that differs from our expectations of soccer royalty. Her story didn’t start in the hotbeds of the U.S. suburbs, where the next big things can be promoted, pitched, and documented from adolescence. She wasn’t honed at the soccer dynasty in Chapel Hill, or teased with links to the heights of the European game. Canadian soccer doesn’t carry the legacy of Germany, the U.S., or even Sweden and Brazil, so to the extent Sinclair’s standard is a product of anything, it’s a product of herself, making her story an awkward fit for the ready-made angles of a still under-covered sport.

For Thorns FC's Christine Sinclair, the record is broken but her presence endures -

Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / Portland Thorns FC

There haven’t been annual tours against chosen competition that could have helped make her a phenomenon, and throughout her career, there have been moments where her senior national team has had to step back and rebuild. Victories were never guaranteed, let alone lopsided, stat-padding results. Of her now record 185 goals, only 40 came in pure friendlies. Invitational tournaments, Olympics, World Cups and qualifying would have to seed her numbers.

Hers was a record hard-earned, over the course of 20 years – two decades without paved roads – all of which makes this day more remarkable. When players around the world see the new list of soccer’s greatest scorers, they won’t see the product of a program that feels a world apart, nor will they see a legend from a culture whose soccer history casts her as a heroine from a different world.

Sinclair is from an ice hockey nation, but in being from a country where soccer isn’t the primary sport, she could have just as easily been from a country where rugby is primary. Or baseball. Or any other place where a player’s success would be in danger of being overshadowed. Canada is not a small country, but it’s also not seen as a global sports powerhouse. There’s something remarkable – and given the last 20 years of this record, rare – about somebody other than an American holding the list’s top spot.

In that status, there is inspiration. There is reason to believe greatness has no pedigree. No privilege is required. The obstacles between where a person stands and soccer’s greatest honors need not define your talent. Part of this record’s legacy will be the heights Sinclair reached without those bonafides. She created a new context, almost by herself.

Another part of that legacy, though – the primary part – will be how supremely talented she is, and what she’s done with those talents. Throughout her career, Sinclair has been the stereotypical pro’s pro, not only because of the professionalism with which she approaches the game but because her talents seemed to only be appreciated by those who had to stop them. Skilled but not flashy, intelligent but not showy, Sinclair’s time on the field is spent with certain preferences in mind, preferences that leave her more likely to make a defensive-drawing run than gamble from distance for a spectacular shot. As intelligent as any of her peers and predecessors, Sinclair’s used an underappreciated athleticism in the vision of those who groomed her, including University of Portland's Clive Charles. Her style of soccer demands a certain approach, one that is often as accountable to others as it is personal.

And again, that’s part of what contributed to this moment. If Sinclair had ever put this record front and center, it breaking surely would have been a better spectacle. But to the extent she ever stopped, pointed, and called her shot, she did so in private, with a humility that’s always gone hand-in-hand with her talents. As Portland Thorns fans have seen over seven years in which the world’s best scorer has been willing to sacrifice her goals, the numbers are a byproduct of something bigger, even if, over time, those numbers have certainly come.

That’s not to say her approach has been without spectacle. Look no further than the semifinals of the 2011 Summer Olympics, where three of her 185 goals comprised one of the best individual performances in the game’s history. Sinclair almost single-handedly lifted Canada past the United States that day. Eleven of her record total have come against those rivals; another eight against Sweden; eight more against Brazil; four each against Germany and England. China’s been exploited 12 times. Eighty-five of her goals have come against teams in the top 20 of FIFA’s current world rankings, a number that’s sure to grow as the rest of her career plays out.

This isn’t an end point. The Olympics are going to come, as well as the other dates that dot the 2020 season. She’s said, before, that she will reevaluate her career once the coming major tournament passes, but no matter where that evaluation goes, 185 is unlikely to be the final mark. As her play for club and country over the last year has shown, Sinclair’s capable of putting distance between her mark and the pack. When future generations look at the new list, it will seem as if Sinclair’s been there all along.

As she does, she’ll continue to change the conversation, moving it in the direction it should have gone, before. Sinclair is the greatest scorer of all-time, no doubt, but even before this mark was in place, there was reason to think she was the greatest player her sport has ever seen. Now that she’s in possession of the game’s most famous mark, those discussions can gain the strength they should have had all along. And, they will probably be a lot shorter.