Canadian soccer team says goodbye to joker, playmaker, lefty

With Melissa Tancredi, Rhian Wilkinson and Marie-Ève Nault announcing their retirements on Friday, the Canadian women's soccer team will have to carry on without a "tough as nails" joker, a playmaking full back and a valuable lefty, writes Nigel Reed.

Key veterans Tancredi, Wilkinson, Nault announce retirements

Melissa Tancredi, right, was beloved for both her fearless play and her ability to crack up teammates, while Rhian Wilkinson's playmaking ability from the full back position was ahead of its time. (Graham Stuart/AFP/GettyImages)

Breathe, Canada. It's not who you worried it might be.

Christine Sinclair is not retiring, although her time is inevitably approaching.

The fact that Sinclair's name is not on the list of Canadian women's soccer players who announced the end of their careers Friday is a sure sign she's ready to commit to another cycle of international soccer — one that will culminate in the 2019 Women's World Cup and the 2020 Olympic Games.

While Sinclair is willing to soldier on, she is losing some tried and trusted, battle-hardened lieutenants. Between them, Melissa Tancredi, Rhian Wilkinson and Marie-È​ve Nault have racked up close to 400 caps for Canada, and while the next generation is hungry and raring to go, that kind of experience simply cannot be replaced overnight.

Thank the Tanc

In any team environment, individual members must find their place. For more than a decade Tancredi has been Team Canada's entertainer. Breaking the locker room tension with an improvised dance came as naturally as kicking a football, something she's done since she was little more than a toddler.

"Tanc" could hardly have chosen a more apt nickname. Former teammate Clare Rustad told me while Tancredi happily accepted the role of dressing-room morale booster, she was "tough as nails on the field."

As a target forward, Tanc was "a rock" and a player who would "lay her body on the line." One has only to think back to the 2012 Olympics for evidence. Her determination to bully her way between a pair of Swedish defenders and earn a point for her country laid the foundation for that famous run to the podium.

Tancredi's bravery was always a trademark. Her willingness to risk personal injury for the common good impressed successive coaches and led to well over 100 caps. Her combative nature also inspired those around her — she was the kind of athlete you'd much rather play with than against. 

But there is more to Tanc than soccer. Her decision to walk away from the game at the age of 30 — soon after the success of the London Olympics to complete her chiropractic degree — is a testament to her individuality and her long-held belief that one should always "dream big."

Tancredi's star could have been brighter. Had she not played alongside Canada's greatest her entire career, it surely would have been. Tancredi always played second fiddle to Sinclair, but a fair number of her 27 international goals required Sinclair's assistance and vice versa. 

Technically, of course, Tancredi wasn't in the same league as Sinclair. But then take one hand and count the number of female footballers who are. Tancredi's body of work for her country will stand the test of time. 

She always showed up when it mattered and had the belief and commitment to force her way back onto the international scene when many thought her playing career was over. A pair of goals to hand Canada its first-ever win over Germany in Brazil, and her efforts in helping Canada win a second straight Olympic bronze medal, prove otherwise.

Wilkinson ahead of her time

In any sport, longevity is desirable but difficult to achieve. Serious injury, loss of form or a change of coach are just a few reasons why the careers of many elite athletes are cut short. 

Rhian Wilkinson is more than a mere survivor. Blessed with offensive instincts from her junior days, Wilkinson found her spot and made it her own. She was an attacking full back long before it became fashionable — the result of "a very high work ethic," according to Rustad.

As always, the stats never lie. Only one player in Canadian history has more assists than Wilkinson's 23. No player logs those kinds of numbers by being a stay-at-home defender. Only Sinclair has more helpers.

Nault's left foot all right

Naturally left-footed players are hard to find, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere. Marie-Eve Nault's left peg was better than most. An unsung hero, perhaps, and rarely an automatic choice, but her sense of timing and ability to read danger was always a reliable asset. 

Nault's involvement in the hugely controversial penalty incident that handed the U.S. a lifeline in the epic 2012 Olympic semifinal is embedded in our memory banks.

The protests that followed were as vociferous as I've seen from a Canadian women's team in recent memory, matched only by the referee's stubborn resistance.

Unsurprisingly, it was Tancredi who led the demonstration. Tanc was still arguing with the official as Abby Wambach spotted the ball and composed herself for what was to come. Tancredi was shown a yellow card for dissent.

Three days later Tancredi, Wilkinson and Nault received their Olympic medals. Tancredi recalled, "It was like a little soap opera."

All soaps have drama; few have happy endings.


Nigel Reed


Nigel has spent more than 30 years covering a wide variety of sports in both Canada and Europe. He has worked on multiple Olympic Games and World Cups, specializing in soccer, rugby and golf. In recent years he has broadcast Major League Soccer, Rugby Canada, Toronto Wolfpack and the 2015 Pan Am Games.


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