January 28, 2012
By Michael Lewis
CLASH OF THE TITANS
Wambach vs. Sinclair in CONCACAF Women's Olympic qualifying final
VANCOUVER — Soccer fans attending Sunday’s CONCACAF women’s Olympic qualifying tournament championship game between the United States and Canada at BC Place (8 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network) will be treated to a rare confrontation of 100-plus international goal-scorers.
|Abby Wambach finds herself in a rare confrontation against another 100-plus goal-scorer in Canada's Christine Sinclair.
Linda Cuttone/Sports Vue Images
After all, it isn’t every day that two strikers tied for the third spot on the all-time international goal-scoring list with 129 tallies apiece go head-to-head in a confederation championship, let alone in an international friendly.
With both teams having qualified for the 2012 London Summer Games, the pressure is off the players and team. So, there is the potential for a showcase of their talents, particularly two well-known players.
On one end of the pitch will be Abby Wambach, who helped the United States, the top-ranked team in the world, qualify for its fifth consecutive Olympics. She has scored a confederation record 12 Olympic qualifying goals and has four in this competition.
On the other end of the field will be Christine Sinclair, who has led to a seventh-place ranking in the world and to its second successive Summer Games. She leads this tournament with nine qualifying goals.
It is mind-boggling how close their statistics are. Sinclair has performed in 172 international matches, Wambach in 170. Wambach is 31-years-old, Sinclair 28.
As impressive are their numbers, their real worth goes well beyond statistics. It is what they mean to their respective teams.
They have much in common.
Both players are unselfish — literally no prima donnas here — and realize they are a role player — although they are ultimate role player.
Both players gritty and play with a ton of heart.
And both players play through injuries for the good of the team.
But that’s where the similarities end because their personalities — on and off the field — cannot be further apart.
Wambach is brash and outspoken, Sinclair is reserved.
Abby enjoyed the spotlight, Christine would rather be out of it.
The American is a battering ram of a striker, the Canadian is much more mobile and can be a goal-scorer or a playmaker.
“The common thread that runs through both of them — world-class forwards,” said U.S. Soccer women’s technical director April Heinrichs, who knows something about world class.
During her playing days, Heinrichs was one of the most lethal forwards on the planet, helping the Americans to the very first Women’s World Cup championship in 1991 and finding the back of the net 38 times in 47 international matches. Heinrichs also guided the U.S. to a third-place finish at the 2003 WWC and to a gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Given the Americans’ success in the WWC and Olympics and her outgoing personality, the 5-11 Wambach is probably the better known of the two players. She is a two-time Olympic gold-medal winner and has finished in the final four of the WWC, taking second once and third twice.
Wambach is a force of nature on the field. When she is at the top of her game, she is like a runaway locomotive.
“The attributes that Abby has in the air and her power in the air, her assured ability to get under every ball and to head it properly on the frame or really close to the frame is absolutely incredible,” Heinrichs said. “We’ve just never seen anyone like her in the women’s game in the air. Also, her competitiveness and her spirit we saw throughout this last World Cup and in her career and by the statistics that she has chalked up that she’s a force. When she is on the field, she is a force that every team in the world has a difficult time managing. So at every moment she can change the game.”
Sinclair has played in the 2008 Olympics as the Canadians lost to the Americans in the quarterfinals and at the 2011 WWC.
“She too is world class in her ability to finish chances, in the air, on the ground,” Heinrichs said. “Her mobility off the ball is very nuanced.”
Sinclair, who has played as a forward for most of her career, has been switched to the top of the diamond of a 4-4-2 system in this competition. Canada coach John Herdman felt it was better for Sinclair and the team to move back to midfield.
“That girls’ got vision,” he said. “She can lift space and time like no other player. When you play against Canada there is an expectation that Sinclair is going to play a [similar] position. Teams get used to that. So this helped Sincy shed a new skin. It sort of revitalized her a bit. You look at the game a bit differently. I think players like to re-invent themselves. It was bringing Sinchy to a different level so she could do two jobs and she did it so well tonight.”
Regardless where Sinclair plays, Heinrichs knew that the Burnaby, British Columbia-born player can make an impact.
“Now she’s facing the goal more often than taking these hits from behind,” she said. “So she has a lot of flexibility and versatility. She is the highest class player that’s ever come out of Canada. What makes her so high class is her diversity to break down defenses. She’s tall, but moves extremely fast. It’s also as though she’s fast upstairs so she’s a step ahead of everyone around her. She has clearly developed it.
“What has been exciting to me to watch is that she’s developing more and more every year, developing the nuances of her game. Changing directions, heading the ball. She used to be a real good flick header. Now she’s a power header. She’s about to play more than one position and that makes her even more difficult to handle as a player.”
OK, before you ask, just who is the better player?
We’ll let Wambach answer that question.
“I think she is probably is the most underrated player in the whole world,” Wambach said. “She has scored nearly as many goals as I have. We’ve got similar stats — games, goals — but she’s playing, no disrespect for Canada, but for the last 10 years playing on the Canadian team, who has necessarily had the best squad at all times. They’ve gotten so much better. They are one of the top teams, especially in CONCACAF, going to the World Cup, probably didn’t fare as well as they should have and maybe expected to. Christine Sinclair has not only my respect, but the respect of everybody on this team.
“Everybody has played with or against her in the WPS. She in my opinion is the best all-around player. She does everything so well. She’s good with her feet, good with holding the ball, good in the air. She’s surprisingly quick and fast. She’s just one of the best finishers in and around the 18-yard box that’s in the game right now.”
Sinclair also marveled at Wambach’s ability, skills and achievements.
“It’s incredible,” she said. “First of all with Abby, it’s just a tremendous talent. it is an honor to be sort of at the same level as her. Abby’s led that team for years. She’s a constant goal threat. She just has this fighting spirit about her, that never die attitude. You always can count on if not score, get some good chances.”
Part of the public recognition factor about Wambach is that she is far from a shrinking violet. If she has an opinion or a point of view, she will let you know, even you didn’t ask about it.
During a team meeting at a Redondo Beach, Calif. hotel in 2008, U.S. coach Pia Sundhage told Wambach to “Shut up!” Sundhage said that the striker kept on talking and talking and talking.
Wambach smiled when she was asked about that.
“Shut up,” the striker said. “She said shut up.”
“I can talk, I’m a talker. I will tell you how I feel all the time. That’s what my teammates had to pleasantly had to learn.”
So imagine the surprise when Wambach was named co-captain by Sundhage recently.
“Quite honestly I was a little shocked that Pia wanted to change things up,” Wambach said. “Not that she doesn’t like to change things up. She loves that part of sports as well. I have so much respect for all my teammates that quite honestly if I have to the co-captain or captain band, I’m still going to be who I am. I’m still going to support you, still going to yell at you. I’m still going to probably kick you in practice. I’m still going to you make the player that you can be, whether I can the band on my hard or whether I am a co-captain.
“I think Pia sometimes regrets that because I tell her exactly how I feel. the first day, I said, how about this and this and this? and she’s like, ‘Oh God, here we go.’ ”
If she had her way, Sinclair would be out of the spotlight.
In a story entitled “Reluctant Superstar” by Mike Beamish in Friday’s Vancouver Sun, Sinclair would prefer the less said about her the better.
“She gives polite answers to the microphones and TV cameras after a Canadian practice, almost amazing that anyone would think she is hot stuff,” Beamish wrote.
“She does talk much to other people about herself and she sure doesn’t talk about herself to us,” her mother, Sandra, told the Sun. “She realizes she’s a good athlete, but it’s not in her nature to brag. Besides, she knows she would get heck and static from her uncles, aunts and cousins.”
Wambach realized neither she or Sinclair are far from finished. Despite injuries, they keep plugging on. The American is probably best known for breaking her leg only days before the team left for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She is battling several injuries in this competition. During the 2011 Women’s World Cup, Sinclair broke her nose and wore a protective mask to protect her injury. During Canada’s 3-1 semifinal win over Mexico on Friday, she was kicked in her ankle really bad, but continued playing.
Given their prolific rates, there is a good chance that both players will surpass American Kristine Lilly, who has played more international games (352) than any other player — man or woman — in the world — into the second spot on the international scoring list on Sunday. Lilly has 130 goals. The incomparable Mia Hamm is at the top of the list with 158 international goals in 275 appearances.
“It’s just going to be a matter of time whenever Sincy or I end up breaking Mia’s record,” Wambach said. “Obviously we want to stay healthy and contribute to goals scored to our team. But honestly, I’ve said this from the beginning. I’d give away every record, individual that I have ever won for the world championship. I think Sincy would say the same thing.”
Regardless what transpires at BC Place on Sunday, a Canadian win or an American victory — both women have the potential to put on a show for the ages. Enjoy it. Games and confrontations like this don’t happen too often. Then, neither do players such as Christine Sinclair and Abby Wambach.