It’s not just the steel blue eyes. There’s more to the white walkers parallel than the oft-freezing glare of Canada’s best player, though thanks to a few choice camera angles and the power of internet memefication, the idea of Christine Sinclair as a specter ready to enact a legend’s wrath started to make sense. At least, it did as yesterday’s Womens’ World Cup opener between Canada and China started to unfold.
Unfortunately for Canada and Sinclair, the big raid never came. The climactic moment when that looming army descends from the hills? It didn’t happen. Instead, a forgiving if justified whistle in extra time allowed this year’s host to take a 1-0 win from the penalty spot. Sinclair got her goal, but the closest we got to this …
… was …
Less mass uprising. More emboldened relief.
But let’s go full #SportsJournalism on this white walker metaphor. In Game of Thrones, the white walkers have been a perpetual threat, one that has, for the most part, been dormant, allowing the imaginations of impending victims to run wild. Only the occasional incursion into a village to make orphans of a new generation keeps the threat alive. Likewise, Sinclair, discussed as one of the best players in the world when the National Women’s Soccer League started just over two years ago (and, more recently), hasn’t been the destructive force Portland Thorns fans anticipated. Sixteen goals and three assists in 45 games are totals few could dream to reach, but this is a talent who is third on the all-time international goal scoring list (154), only 28 goals behind Abby Wambach, who is three years older.
She is one of the women’s soccer world’s elite talents. Big enough, tall enough to play as a target forward, Sinclair would be wasted in such a narrow role. Her level of technique is closer to a player like Louisa Nécib (think Mesut Ozil, if you usually stick to men’s soccer). At times, she shows the vision of a Kelly Smith (Juan Román Riquelme). Her on-field, positional versatility allows her to pop up anywhere in Marta-esque (say, Carlos Tevez) fashion, while the drive she’s exhibited in big games rivals even Carli Lloyd’s (or, Andrés Iniesta’s).
The latent question coming into this tournament was What’s up with Christine Sinclair? Why haven’t those talents led to more production on the field? Out of respect, few people are asking it out loud, and nobody’s put it to her directly, but over the last two years, she hasn’t been close to the unstoppable force that nearly ended the United States’ Olympic run three years ago.
And if this summer’s host nation is going to meet expectations of making a semifinal run, if not more, it’s going to have to answer the question: What’s up with Christine Sinclair?
The opening day of the tournament didn’t offer any answers. In fact, it only fed into the confusion. In the first half, set up as a No. 10 but given freedom to move forward above forwards Melissa Tancredi and Jonelle Foligno, Sinclair was set up to sway the match. When needed, she could use her superior skills and instincts to push the occasionally goal-shy Canada into attack. And when the team built down the flanks with fullbacks Alyssa Chapman and Josée Bélanger, Sinclair could morph into a No. 9 that would be the team’s focal point in the final third.
It’s the perfect way to use Sinclair, and for much of yesterday’s first half, it worked, most notably during a sequence near the half-hour mark that saw three consecutive Canadian shots blocked by China’s desperate defense. But in the second half, there were signs the white walker would have pity, particularly on an early half layoff from Sophie Schmidt that Sinclair, open from about 12 yards out, rolled like a square ball into the hands of goalkeeper Wang Fei.
As Michael Caley noted in his expected goals chart …
… Canada finished the match with only a couple of mean chances: Sinclair’s in the second half, and a couple of shots from 19-year-old defender Kadeisha Buchanan early in the first. Thankfully for them, China couldn’t get anything going, either, so when the 91st minute foul by Chinese defender Rong Zhao sent Adriana Leon to ground under a high forearm, the host nation was bailed out. Sinclair stepped to the spot, fired her shot inside the left post, just under Wei, and Canada had its 1-0 win.
Unfortunately, it didn’t have answers. And in the day’s second game, Canada likely watched two teams, the Netherlands and New Zealand, who can give it a bigger scare than China.
While nothing is as scary as a white walker, it’s still unclear if winter is actually coming. We’re still not sure what’s up with Christine Sinclair.
Here’s all you need to know about last night’s second game between World Cup debutant the Netherlands and a New Zealand side that may get squeezed out by a balanced Group A.
Perhaps it’s too much to say that shot was unstoppable – Erin Nayler could have taken a step left knowing a shooter cutting in with speed, around a player, is unlikely to get to the other post with anything but a weak dribbler or a ball pulled out of bounds – but let’s give Lieke Martens credit. One of the few goalkeepers in the world who could have stopped that shot had played earlier in the day in Berlin, and Gigi Buffon (or, a Manuel Neuer) is not suiting up in this tournament. Martens’ shot may not have been literally unstoppable, but it was practically unstoppable.
The rest of the match was a stand-off. Proof, ish:
If you prefer technique-driven play, you probably saw the Netherlands as the better side. If you appreciate a sharpened shoulder and a willingness to push your way through a defense, you may have seen New Zealand as the better team, particularly in the second half. But come the final whistle, we had our second 1-0 of the night, with the Dutch joining Canada at the top of the group.
(You should probably follow Michael Caley.)
Quick, but important
Canada set a new record for attendance at a women’s game:
Canada also has a problem in central defense:
This wasn’t Lauren Sesselemann’s only issue on Saturday, and unfortunately, there are no obvious solutions. Defender midfielder Desiree Scott could spend a lot of her tournament doing this:
Lauren Sesselmann, still recovering from a knee injury, is probably head coach John Herdman’s best option. Unfortunately, until she can prove that “still recovering” label should leave, Sesselmann’s likely to get pressed as hard as she was against China. And she has to be better.
The internet has a new boyfriend. At least, soccer Twitter does, and it’s Canada’s head coach, John Herdman:
Or maybe this isn’t a new thing:
This month, however, a lot of people who don’t normally follow women’s soccer are going to be introduced to the pheromone that is John Herdman. Given Canada has a nice path to the semifinals, he’ll likely be around for a while. Let’s hope FOX gives this the coverage it deserves.
This wasn’t exactly treated as a head injury last night:
After Netherlands’ goalkeeper Loes Geurts collided with New Zealand attacker Hannah Wilkinson, it was unclear if she was knocked out or just collecting herself. When somebody lies face down, eyes closed, mouth open and immobile, it’s probably best to investigate the worse.
According to two colleagues, though, the possibility of a head injury wasn’t explored by FOX’s lead broadcast team. At least, it wasn’t given the attention that we’ve come to expect when these incidents happen, worrisome given Geurts was still face down when trainers began attending to her.
Geurts was able to continue, but if the game was on ESPN, it’s hard to believe a network featuring Taylor Twellman would have been as casual.
For those expecting more close matches on Sunday, allow me to remind you of the realities of Group B. In a tournament of top-heavy groups, this one is the most polarized, with two teams that faced off in 2013’s European championship, Germany and Norway, taking on two of the three or four worst teams in the draw.
Saturday featured two goals in 180 minutes. In Sunday’s first game, Norway should score that in the first half. In the nightcap, the tournament’s most talented team is facing off against possibly its worst. If you gave me an over-under on German goals at 8.5, I don’t know which side I’d take.
- Norway vs. Thailand, 1 p.m. Eastern, Ottawa, FOX
- Ivory Coast vs. Germany, 4 p.m. Eastern, Ottawa, FOX