Book Review

Portland Thorns Captain Christine Sinclair on Her New Memoir, ‘Playing the Long Game’

The famously private Canadian gold medalist, goal-scoring world record holder, and University of Portland alum has some strong words for her country, but only love for her adopted hometown.

By Margaret Seiler November 3, 2022

Book cover of Playing the Long Game by Christine Sinclair, with image of back of a soccer player wearing number 12 and captain's armband, face visible in profile

Christine Sinclair has had a big week. On Saturday, she played 73 minutes in the game that won the Portland Thorns their third NWSL championship. On Sunday, following a night of locker-room Budweiser and cigars, she greeted fans in the roadway at Portland International Airport. On Tuesday she appeared before fans at Providence Park and gave the people exactly what they wanted: a well-placed f-bomb to stoke a Cascadia rivalry, and the news that she has signed a contract for one more year with the Thorns. Also on Tuesday, she published a book. And might have declared war on Canada.

“For me it’s about getting female athletes’ stories out there,” Sinclair said last month in a Zoom interview with Portland Monthly about why the famously private international soccer superstar agreed to pen a memoir. “I grew up with Mia Hamm, and Mia Hamm only,” she continued, listing the one female soccer player a sporty kid born in Burnaby, British Columbia, in 1983 might have had to look up to. “So hopefully times are changing.” 

Indeed, they are. The soccer-idol choices have increased dramatically, and Sinclair’s new memoir, Playing the Long Game, cowritten with Canadian sports journalist Stephen Brunt and published November 1 by Random House Canada, isn’t alone on the shelf, either. There’s Abby Wambach’s Forward, Megan Rapinoe’s One Life, Brianna Scurry’s My Greatest Save, Hope Solo’s Solo: A Memoir of Hope, Carli Lloyd’s When Nobody Was Watching: My Hard-Fought Journey to the Top of the Soccer World (and its young-adult adaptation, All Heart: My Dedication and Determination to Become One of Soccer’s Best—cowritten coincidentally, with the sportswriter dad of Sam Coffey, one of Sinclair’s teammates on the Thorns).

Not surprisingly, Sinclair’s entry doesn’t have her name or any superlatives or first-person-singular pronouns in the title. She didn’t even do a photo shoot for the front cover—it’s a stock photo we’ve used before in Portland Monthly, showing her from behind in a Canada jersey (no. 12 for Toronto Blue Jays star Robbie Alomar, readers learn), with just a glimpse of her face in profile.

She shares tales of a rather free-range upbringing in an era before social media, and she delves into very personal territory sharing the loss of her parents (her father in 2016, and her mother just this year). She often brings up her shyness, and a lot of the book isn't about her, specifically, but about the life of an international athlete of her era. Readers learn that the Pan Am Games are “kind of a budget Olympics,” and that Olympic medals can cause quite a scene at airport security. 

Sinclair often shines a light on past teammates (including her current coach, Rhian Wilkinson, and Thorns general manager Karina LeBlanc, who, we learn, once hoarded pesto during a bizarre team residency in Italy) and on the coaches who changed her life. There was Clive Charles, the University of Portland coach who brought her to the Rose City, a place where prior to college she'd visited relatives and watched part of the 1999 Women's World Cup and seen crowds in the thousands for a women's game for the first time. (As we learn in the memoir, Portlanders should thank the University of North Carolina's Anson Dorrance for a rather off-putting recruitment visit to the Canadian teen's family home, not to mention the gall—the gall!—to not initially offer Sinclair a full ride.)

She also writes about John Herdman, Canada’s coach from 2011 to 2018 (when he took over Canada’s men’s national team), who comes off as a non-corny cross between Ted Lasso and Mary Poppins: He elevates those around him, he cares about and supports players on and off the field, and “he has the unique ability to motivate and galvanize a team… If he ever decided to do it for a living, he’d be the best motivational speaker in the world." Sinclair writes. "He is all about individuals being vulnerable in front of each other and sharing emotions.” And when his work is done (when the wind changes?), he moves on and leaves no hard feelings behind.

When asked in our interview if Ted Lasso could possibly have been based on her old coach (aside from the not-knowing-anything-about-soccer part, as Herdman is certainly an expert), Sinclair delivered a shocker: she’s never seen the show. 

The book was started after Canada, the country whose national teams she’s starred on since she was a teenager, won Olympic gold in Japan in summer 2021, and it was done and dustjacketed well before the release of the Yates report on systemic abuses in the NWSL. Sinclair has harsh words for a national soccer federation, but it’s for her home country’s Canada Soccer Association and its historical lack of investment in the women’s game, and lack of a real development program or women’s professional league in Canada. “You claimed you couldn’t fund us as well as the other countries fund their women’s teams because our men’s team wasn’t successful. Well, how about now?” The men’s team, under Herdman, has leapt into its confederation’s top tier and qualified for its first World Cup since 1986. “It’s time to show up and actually do it.”

A reader looking for Thorns intel will be disappointed, as Sinclair’s long club career is more of a background element in Playing the Long Game. When she discusses the moment in Canada’s Olympic semifinal against the US in 2021 when she handed the ball to teammate Jessie Fleming for a game-winning penalty kick and “[t]heir goalkeeper had no idea where Jessie was going to shoot,” a Portlander might shout at the book, “You mean your six-season Thorns teammate AD Franch?!” (That win was a big deal, of course, and Canada's always-a-bridesmaid status in the regional federation does stir up some feelings. "I hope people in the US don’t hate me because of the things I say about the US team and the rivalry there. I hope my Thorns teammates are OK with it," Sinclair said, with a laugh.)

Anyone who's read the Yates report might feel a bit uneasy at her “love” for the organization and be tempted to read more into her observation that players who have “poor experiences with a coach … tend to get the heck out [of sports] as soon as they can.”

But there’s also love for the city of Portland and for the Thorns’ ardent fans, and an appreciation of the gentle local media members who “figured out early on that I was someone who was going to put up some barriers, that I was going to talk business and that’s it. I made it clear that there were things I wasn’t going to talk about, including my family, and now, for the most part, they know not to ask,” she writes. “Portland is a place where I can drop out of the spotlight if I want to—a safe haven where I can just live my life.”

And Portlanders, for the most part, tend to let her be. “I think the people in Portland are respectful of the Timbers players and the Thorns players, will give you your space and politely ask for an autograph or a photo,” she said in our interview. A homebody who usually sticks to her routine, she also mentioned she has yet to visit the Sports Bra, the women’s sports den on NE Broadway where a shy superstar could easily be overwhelmed.

There may be another sports bar in her future—her own. That’s one of the possible postretirement what-ifs she mentions in the book, along with becoming an assistant coach or running a doggie daycare. As for when that era might begin, she writes that she has considered the example of both Formiga, the Brazilian legend who retired only last year, at age 43, and Tom Brady, who won a big thing and then sent out a simple announcement that he was done.

But, as she assured Portland fans on Tuesday, she’s a Thorn for at least one more year.


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