Priestman says Sinclair ‘in the best form of her career’ ahead of sixth World Cup
As Christine Sinclair prepares for her sixth and perhaps final FIFA Women’s World Cup, there are questions about the role she will play for Canada.
The Canadian icon just turned 40 last month, and she hasn’t played 90 minutes for her country since the Tokyo Games almost two years ago. But Canada’s coach, Bev Priestman, has zero doubts when it comes to her captain.
“In my mind, she's in the best form of her career,” Priestman told TSN in April. “At this moment, she seems fitter, hungrier than I've seen her since I've been here. And so, if all continues, she stays healthy and is as hungry as what I feel now, I'm really excited of what she does at this World Cup.”
It’s a bold statement from Priestman with Sinclair in the twilight of her remarkable career. The native of Burnaby, B.C., has unquestionably long been the catalyst for Canada. She’s the all-time leader in international goals with 190, and 10 of those have come at the World Cup. She’s won Canadian Player of the Year 14 times since 2000, including 11 straight years from 2004-2014.
For the longest time, as she went, Canada went.
But Sinclair’s role has changed for both club and country over the past few years. While soccer fans know her best as one of the world’s top strikers, she now plays in a more withdrawn role for Canada and the Portland Thorns in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), largely playing as a central midfielder.
“There's been a decline in some of the qualities that have allowed her to be amongst the world's best at the striker position,” said Amy Walsh, TSN soccer analyst and former Canadian international. “I think that it's going to be a lesser role for Sinclair, but it's very much how Bev manages that role, how Bev manages the collective.”
Looking at her numbers in the NWSL so far this season, she has three goals and two assists in all competitions (regular season and Challenge Cup). While these basic scoring statistics may fail to impress (she is well back of Portland teammate Sophia Smith’s league-leading 10 goals, for example), more advanced stats reveal what Sinclair brings on the pitch.
As a playmaker, Sinclair is still excelling. According to American Soccer Analysis, she has 3.23 xAssists (xA) this year in all NWSL competitions, which measures the likelihood that a completed pass will become an assist. Her xA is third highest in the league, while she also boasts a pass percentage of 75.4, eighth highest in the NWSL among players with a minimum of 500 minutes.
Another key underlying stat for Sinclair is xPA per100, or additional passes completed over or under expected, measured per 100 passes. She has a mark of 6.65, meaning she has completed 6+ more passes per 100 than expected, which is third highest in the league. She has also made 24 key passes this year (11th most in the NWSL), which is a pass by a player that leads to a scoring chance where the teammate failed to score (hence, a key pass is awarded rather than an assist).
“I think sometimes you see, even now, players who have played with her for a long time surprised when she's able to unlock a defence and to find that seam and to spring them,” Walsh said. “If you break a game down and you look at her ability to see something that other players don't – it’s a quality that I'm always amazed at every single time I see her play.”
Sinclair’s 1.15 mark in goals added (which measures a player’s total on-ball contribution in attack and defence) is 15th highest league-wide, while her combined expected goals and expected assists is 6.21 – good for 12th in the NWSL.
“I think I've developed a lot as a player,” Sinclair told TSN earlier this year. “As a kid I had run faster than everyone and put the ball back in the net. But Bev, obviously John [Herdman] before, Kenneth [Heiner- Møller], my coaches in club have asked me to be more of a well-rounded player, and I'm flourishing.”
Her recent numbers with Canada tell a similar story. A quick glance reveals that Sinclair hasn’t scored in her past 12 matches for her country, dating back to the CONCACAF W Championship last July.
But according to Wyscout, Sinclair is producing 1.4 chances per match against top 10 opponents since the Olympics, which puts her right behind world leader Alexia Putellas of Spain. She also had 1.4 key passes per match in 2022, second only to American Rose Lavelle when ranked in the No. 10 role.
“Sinc, last year, I think people don't realize the impact she has – key passes, critical moments, all came from Christine Sinclair,” Priestman said.
Beyond the statistics, there are a number of intangibles that Sinclair brings to the team. Her movement off the ball is world-class, as is her ability to read the game. Walsh points to a recent goal Sinclair scored against OL Reign, where she kept herself close to the referee, off the radar of the Reign’s defence, and then timed her run perfectly to the top of the box for a first-time shot off a pass from teammate Morgan Weaver.
“It's her ability to find those soft spaces on the field that I think is underrated,” Walsh said. “And she does it in all areas of the pitch. You even look at her defensively.”
Sinclair has also long possessed the talent to make the game look simple, even when it’s not. She can make a highlight-reel goal appear almost pedestrian with her ability to set herself up in front of goal and finish effortlessly.
Walsh played with Sinclair on the national team for parts of 10 years from 2000 to 2009 and experienced a first-hand account of Sinclair’s understated brilliance.
“I remember asking when we played [together], ‘Sinc, what is it that you do when you get close to net that allows you to finish so clinically every time?’ She’s like, ‘Well, I just put the ball where the goalie’s not.’ Well, it’s not so easy for the rest of us,” Walsh said with a laugh.
While Sinclair still has a high value on the pitch, there remains an uncertainty about how many minutes she can give Canada. She has only played a full 90 minutes for Portland once this season, and while she’s still a regular starter for Canada, she hasn’t played more than 70 minutes in 16 of her past 19 matches since the Olympics.
Walsh points to the success Sinclair has had with the Thorns this year, but wonders how many minutes she’s capable of against opponents in a strong Group B at the World Cup. Canada is in arguably the group of death with Nigeria, Ireland, and co-hosts Australia.
“Can those legs give you the tempo that you need to cover the ground that you need her to cover in the middle of the park with the type of games that Canada is going to need?” Walsh asked.
Sinclair’s inclusion in the midfield also raises the question about what it means for Jessie Fleming, who has emerged as Canada’s key playmaker over the past few years. Priestman has often tinkered with her midfield formation, sometimes using Sinclair in the No. 10 role while dropping Fleming further back in a double pivot with Julia Grosso.
“If you're comparing a Christine Sinclair to a Grosso or a Fleming in that role, can she give you that output [in minutes]? I think it’s the question you need to be asking and I'm not sure that she can,” Walsh said.
“I think it’s very much Jessie Fleming's team. How Fleming goes, I think Canada goes. So, if Christine is playing in a more withdrawn 10… does that affect how advanced Fleming can be? And does that then affect the team's offence and the way that the team ticks?”
While questions remain surrounding Sinclair’s role on the pitch, there is no doubt she is still Canada’s leader and continues to shape the next generation of players.
“She just makes the game feel simple,” Priestman said. “When you've got young players in the environment, she just brings that level of calmness… So, for me, she'll be an absolute pivotal role in this team.”
And if this is indeed Sinclair’s last World Cup, no matter her role, she plans to leave it all on the pitch.
“I'm healthy. I know I've never been fitter,” she said. “I am truly giving my absolute all for this World Cup. No regrets.”