Chasing Abby or Catching Abby

By Benjamin Massey

December 1st, 2017 · No comments

Kyle Thomas/Canadian Soccer Association

For Canada’s women’s national team, 2017 was an intermission. No Olympics, no World Cup, no qualifying, 365 days of the calendar you got out of way to prepare for the next thousand. 2018, 2019, and 2020 are what count: Jessie Fleming, Deanne Rose, Rebecca Quinn, Ashley Lawrence, Kadeisha Buchanan, and hopefully players we didn’t expect developing into the most competitive lineup Canada has ever had. If we’re ever going to win some gold these are the women who’ll do it.

However, there’s another piece of history Canada is chasing for which 2017 mattered a great deal. In our last game against Norway Christine Sinclair scored the 169th goal of her international career and fourth of the year. She needs 16 more international goals to pass Abby Wambach for the most in the history of soccer.

16. Not that many, not with CONCACAF World Cup qualifying bringing games against Haiti and Puerto Rico and that lot next year. But Sinclair is 34, old for her position and her sport. It’s not certain she has enough time left.

The good news is we don’t need to put the old lady on the ice floe yet. Sinclair’s scoring rate over the past two seasons is better than Adriana Leon’s career rate and basically tied with Deanne Rose. Behind Nichelle Prince, but Prince has 1,013 senior minutes and hasn’t scored in the last 655. More importantly Sinclair’s been piling up the assists: seven in 2017, four in 2016, four in 2015, our leading playmaker each of the last two years. On a roster that despite Herdman’s improvements can get very direct, Sinclair and Janine Beckie are the only forwards moderately capable of holding up the ball and Beckie has better things to do. Sinclair would be in the eleven on merit if her name was Jane Smith and her idea of leadership was telling Sophie Schmidt “your she-man-bun looks very nice.”

You couldn’t say that about Abby Wambach at this stage of her career. When she retired at age 35 nobody, American or otherwise, argued it was too early. But then her team was a lot deeper. The American attack her last year included world player of the year Carli Lloyd, a not-very-broken-yet Alex Morgan, and Christen Press, with Crystal Dunn the coming woman. Running the attack through Wambach made no sense, using her off the bench rather than Dunn or the Amy Rodriguez/Sydney Leroux depth players of the future set seemed unwise and out of her character. If anything most of us seemed to think she’d gone a year or two late. But selfish old Abby was a much better goal-scorer than kind old Christine.

This graph compares Sinclair and Wambach’s goalscoring records in the seasons in which they turned a given age. For example, Christine Sinclair turned 34 this year, so 2017 was her age 34 season. Abby Wambach turned 34 in 2014, so 2014 was her age 34 season.

Sinclair and Wambach were both early June babies so we are truly comparing their performances at the same age. That’s only the first coincidence; it’s weird how closely they trend together. Right down to both slumping at 31 and bumping back in their age 32 seasons. Of course, when Wambach “slumped” in her age 31 season she started the year ice cold and ended it with four goals in six matches at a FIFA World Cup. Sinclair, with nothing much to play for in 2014, scored once.

My co-podcaster Carolyn reminded me that, as recently as 2009, Wambach and Sinclair were within a few goals of each other. Wambach made her century on July 19, 2009 at age 29 against, coincidentally, Canada. Sinclair scored her hundredth five months later, on February 20, 2010 against Poland despite being three years younger. Sinclair had 130 caps, Wambach had 129. It was only in old age that Wambach pulled away.

All through their thirties, Wambach outproduced Sinclair very heavily. Wambach’s worst 30+ season (2011 at age 31, 0.566 G/90) was essentially identical to Sinclair’s best 30+ season (2015 at age 32, 0.570 G/90). Wambach’s advantages included more home games, more easy qualifiers that Canada skipped for 2015, and teammates who deferred to her on scoring chances. Big goalscorers past their primes can make a lot of hay against CONCACAF minnows. Wambach’s age 30-34 seasons included an Olympic qualifying and a World Cup qualifying campaign, running wild both times. Sinclair only had 2016 Olympic qualifying, where she was mostly injured. But for the moment we aren’t asking who was the better player, but who put the ball in the net more. The good news is that Wambach’s production did not decline much from age 30 to age 35, and if Sinclair can do the same she might win on endurance.

In her last two years, Sinclair has scored 0.439 goals/90 minutes clip. That would put her 3,278 minutes away from goal #185 and immortality, or just about three years. Assuming she isn’t injured any more often, and scores at the same rate, and gets just as much playing time every game. As she goes from her mid to her late thirties none of those assumptions are safe. Healthy and productive 2018 Olympic and 2019 World Cup qualifying runs will help Sinclair; age, wear, and tear will hurt.

History’s best female strikers tend to retire around Sinclair’s age. Wambach was 35, Birgit Prinz, Tiffeny Milbrett, and Carolina Morace all 33, Mia Hamm only 32. The exceptions have either been multi-position stars like Kristine Lilly or Michelle Akers or, encouragingly, super-annuated veterans for second-rate countries who still had roles into old age. Scotland’s Julie Fleeting is 36 and still active. Italian Patrizia Panico hung on until age 39. The late 30s are not quite unexplored territory.

Canada’s second-best all-time goalscorer, Charmaine Hooper, not only kept going up until age 38 but provided value. Playing second and sometimes third fiddle behind Sinclair and Kara Lang, Hooper played 1,683 minutes over 24 games from age 36 and up, scoring 11 times, which for Sinclair would do nicely.

Alas, Hooper’s old age flatters to deceive. In her last eight caps Hooper hit one final vein of form, scoring eight times including a hat trick against Sweden to wind up with 71 senior goals in her career. But that was another age. When she last played in July 2006 (it would be inaccurate to say she “retired”) women’s soccer was still young. Today, give-or-take the inevitable blunders, decent teams can basically defend a savvy but unathletic striker. In 2006 players with sometimes questionable fitness could play 90 minutes every night and chip in multi-goal games. Melissa Tancredi got a miracle brace against Germany at the Olympics, but 2016 Melissa Tancredi was Alex Morgan in her prime compared to some of the forwards you saw ten years earlier.

On the other hand, Sinclair’s a lot better than Hooper was.

The odds may still, just, favour Sinclair. Barring injury or the unforeseen, the natural arc of Christine Sinclair’s career will close after the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, when Sinclair will be 37. It’s hardly likely she’ll hang on for another cycle into her forties, but it would also be surprising for her to retire after an Algarve Cup or something unless life makes her. Moreover, and I’m touching wood just typing this, Canada’s 2019–20 team might be highly competitive: the best Sinclair’s ever had, and worth hanging on for at the end of an endlessly frustrating international career. If Sinclair does play through 2020, and has a couple productive qualifying campaigns, that’s just enough time. She’ll never come close to Wambach on goal rate but she might show the fortitude to hang around and catch Abby with sheer guts and longevity, to say nothing of being popular enough that her teammates won’t freeze her out when they don’t need her anymore.

Which, come to think, would be pretty appropriate for a Canadian heroine.

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