Feature photo: Christine Sinclair (centre, in white) against Trinidad and Tobago on December 13, 2015 at the invitational tournament in Natal (Photo: Vlademir Alexandre/Allsports).
Even though Canada couldn’t take the title at Torneio Internacional de Natal in Brazil, for head coach John Herdman the outing provided a chance to assess ahead of the Rio 2016 women’s Olympic football qualification tournament.
A 3-1 loss to the host nation Brazil on Sunday left Canada in second place at the four-nation invitational, where Herdman mixed youth with experience to see what Canada could cook up.
“I’m proud of the girls,” the coach said through a postmatch Canada Soccer release. “It’s been a good four weeks, we’ve had a different squad in with a blend of senior and new faces, and we’ve learned a lot, so I think the future’s bright.”
Canada debuted four teenagers in Brazil, while one of its senior players, Erin McLeod, passed Karina LeBlanc for all-time Canadian appearances among goalkeepers. Worryingly for Canada, McLeod had to be substituted in the final with what appeared to be a knee injury shortly after the half hour mark.
Canada’s next competitive matches will be for a trip to the Olympic Games through its regional (CONCACAF) qualifications that begin with a match against Guyana on February 11, 2016 in Houston, Texas. After winning an emotional bronze medal at London 2012, returning to the Olympic stage is a must for Canada. The other two teams Herdman’s side will face in round robin are Trinidad and Tobago and Guatemala.
When the draw was made in late November, Herdman was relieved to see Canada’s grouping, although he cautioned the path will be “challenging.” To that end, the Englishman will continue to tinker with his setup until he announces the final squad in January.
“We’ll be looking at the organisation of the team. Some of the younger players started growing in confidence, so the future will be about continuing to build that confidence around the senior players, and making sure we get that leadership from the senior group.”
History for Sinclair
When the coaches look to experienced players for guidance, none come with greater authority for Canada than Christine Sinclair, who made some football history in Brazil.
On December 13 in Canada’s second match of the tournament, Sinclair scored the final goal in a 4-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago, the 158th of the London 2012 Closing Ceremony flag bearer’s career. That tied her for second all-time in international competition with Mia Hamm of the United States, with only one other American – recently retired Abby Wambach with 184 – sitting ahead of Sinclair.
In the tournament’s opening match, Canada beat Mexico 3-0 with a brace from Sinclair and a single from Nichelle Prince. The hot start didn’t match the finish, as Canada lost two straight to Brazil to end the tournament. There was a 2-1 round robin defeat where Josée Bélanger found the net for Canada, before Sunday’s final in which Janine Beckie was the Canadian goalscorer.
A classic team player and typically understated about personal achievements, Sinclair kept her focus on the matter at hand after her record-tying goal, which is to prepare Canada for Rio and return the country to an Olympic football podium.
“It’s not something that I spend a lot of time thinking about,” Sinclair said over a teleconference following her 158th goal before calling Hamm a “role model” and someone she idolized as a young girl.
“Honestly, in the buildup to this tournament I actually had no idea I was only a couple of goals behind her. My teammates reminded me of that”
“Obviously as a forward it’s nice to put the ball in the back of the net, but the focus is the development of this team and to get us to Rio. If I can contribute by scoring goals, great, but it’s seeing the progress of this team that’s most important to me.”
Knowing his most famous player’s personality, Herdman lauded Sinclair and complemented her sentiments saying, “she’s very clear in what she wants: to get results for this team and to keep pushing whatever threshold she can as a striker. It’s great that she achieved something today, but to be honest I don’t think she looks at things like that, she just wants to do well for our team and for our country.”