VANCOUVER, B.C.—It can be an odd moment when a game is summed up not by the first goal and not by the winning goal, but by a so-called "insurance" goal. It's even more odd when that's a goal that arose not from a singular effort, but rather a remarkable pairing between two separate players. Yet, that was the case with Canada's 3-1 win over Mexico Friday night, which earned them a berth in the 2012 London Olympics. The victory was defined by the Canadians' third goal in the 76th minute, and that goal in turn was dictated by an incredible, almost-telepathic link between two long-time Canadian players, Melissa Tancredi and Christine Sinclair.
"They've got a little bit of a connection, don't they?" Canadian coach John Herdman said afterwards. "Tanc and Sinc, there's something about what they've got, playing together for so long."
Friday night, that connection manifested itself with an incredible moment. The Canadians received individual goals from Sinclair and Tancredi in the 15th and 23rd minutes, but it was the combination of the two players that proved truly special. Following Tancredi's goal, Canada seemed to have the game well in hand, but Mexico stormed out after the halftime break. The Mexicans forced several incredible saves from Canadian keeper Karina LeBlanc, and Veronica Perez finally drove one home in the 67th minute when a LeBlanc punch off a corner fell to her. With Mexico mounting further pressure, the game and Canada's Olympic berth seemed very much in question until Tancredi and Sinclair teamed up. In the 76th minute, Tancredi collected the ball just on the Mexican side of the halfway line, spun and booted a long ball into the box for Sinclair without much of a look. Sinclair somehow raced past her defender to exactly where the ball arrived, then flicked it up over Mexican keeper Cecilia Santiago and into the back of the net, sealing the Canadian victory.
Afterwards, following an interlude where the Canadian players continued their locker-room tradition of belting out Celine Dion's "The Power of Love," Tancredi said she knew the ball would wind up in the net as soon as she kicked it to Sinclair. Despite the long distance and several defensive players involved, she was so confident in her teammate's finishing ability that she didn't even charge the goal in hopes of a rebound.
"Yeah, I didn't even run, I just stayed by the bench," Tancredi said. "As soon as I saw it go over their back line, I was like, 'Here we go.' One on one with the keeper, she's sure to put that one in."
Tancredi said her long experience with Sinclair has made them incredibly comfortable together on the pitch.
"It's very easy to play with her, honestly," Tancredi said. "She makes it easier. I know where she's going to be, she knows exactly where I'm going to be. She's so speedy and yet so intelligent. It's hard to defend her; she's a step ahead, and almost reading my mind at the same time. I know where she wants the ball, I just put it there and let her do her thing."
Herdman said the Tancredi-Sinclair connection is remarkable to watch from the sidelines, as often they seem to instinctively sense where the other player will be.
"They just know," he said. "That's the beauty of it."
Sinclair may be a lesser-known Canadian star, but she's well-known in the world of women's soccer; her two goals Friday moved her past German legend Brigit Prinz and tied her with U.S. star Abby Wambach for third on the all-time women's international goals list with 129. The Mexican team didn't make it easy for Sinclair, though. They were marking her tightly all night, and that often led to physical hits and one that appeared to injure her. She persevered, though, and Herdman said he wasn't surprised.
"That's Christine, isn't it?" he said. "Broken nose, broken hand, she'll play with anything. She's a special player."
The crowd also played a role in urging Sinclair on. Despite Mexican coach Leonardo Cuellar's earlier suggestion that the crowd might favour his side, it turned out to be a largely pro-Canada crowd. It was also a large crowd: the 22,954 present set a CONCACAF women's Olympic qualifying attendance record. Sinclair, a native of nearby Burnaby, B.C. and one who still has plenty of family in the area, said the crowd inspired her performance.
"The crowd was absolutely amazing," she said. "I'm so proud, especially being from here, to see all the supporters wearing their red and white and even the regular fans."
Cuellar said the crowd may have boosted Canada, but Sinclair was unstoppable Friday.
"She does it so well," he said. "Her composure, the way she smells the play, there's no question she's one of the best players in the world."
Cuellar said the Tancredi-to-Sinclair goal was crushing, as to that point he felt his team was on the verge of coming back.
"We had the momentum," he said. "We were in control of the game."
Yes, for a brief while, it looked like it. Despite the crowd, despite the superlative individual efforts of Sinclair, Tancredi, Leblanc, Desiree Scott and others and despite all the progress the Canadians had made so far in this tournament, for a few minutes it looked like the Mexican team might just find a way to come back and pull off a crushing upset that would kill the Canadians' Olympic dreams. That didn't happen, though, and the main reason was the Tancredi-to-Sinclair play that led to Canada's crucial third goal.
Both Tancredi and Sinclair are tremendous players in their own right, and both had solid games on their own Friday, but it was their combination that led to the transcendent moment that saved the day. The win puts Canada into Sunday's tournament final (8 p.m. Eastern, Sportsnet/CONCACAF.com) against Friday's other winner, the U.S., and it also gives the Canadians a berth in the London Olympics this summer. Expect to see much more of the telepathic Tancredi-Sinclair pairing at both.