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Team Canada wants to send Christine Sinclair out with a pair of wins

The Canadian women's soccer team takes on Australia Friday night in Langford, part of Christine Sinclair's farewell tour before she retires from international play.
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Christine Sinclair and Sophie Schmidt share a laugh prior to Team Canada’s training session on Thursday at Starlight Stadium in Langford. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

Canadian national women’s ­soccer team head coach Bev Priestman quipped “West Coast best coast” after leading her players through practice in the rain Thursday evening at ­Starlight Stadium.

But nothing, not even glowering late fall days, will take away the momentous sheen of the occasion Friday night at 7:30 as all-time world scoring leader Christine Sinclair plays her penultimate game for Canada against Australia at the sold-out facility in Langford. The Sinclair angle hangs over the game like an Island cloud. There is no avoiding it in the farewell tour for one of B.C.’s most beloved athletes, which concludes with Burnaby-native Sinclair’s final game in Canadian colours Tuesday against Australia at B.C. Place.

“The feeling in camp is light but it’s clear the emotion is there,” said Priestman.

“The only difference is we’re on a ferry ride, not a plane ride. But we have to embrace it. This is a big deal. Christine is ­irreplaceable.”

The other Canadian team players acknowledged that ­sentiment after practice at ­Starlight Stadium.

“Christine said she wanted to inspire a nation and I think she has,” said Janine Beckie.

Canadian player Ashley Lawrence added the explosion of girls’ soccer across Canada is directly due to Sinclair: “The numbers have sky-rocketed and that is a credit to this national team and players like Christine.”

Canadian player Nichelle Prince added: “It’s bittersweet. Christine deserves all the celebrations she is about to get this week. But it is sad knowing she’s not going to be a part of this team in the same way anymore. We want to make sure we end her international career on a high note.”

And therein is the built-in pressure. These are friendlies against Australia but they are much more than that. Nobody wants to see Sinclair go out with losses in her home province.

“If you know [Sinclair], you know she doesn’t want any attention on her at all so we make little jokes about how this is all about her, while she doesn’t like to talk about it. We’re all trying to focus on the game but we know this is all about Christine than anything else,” added Prince.

Canadian player Jayde Riviere said this week has been “bittersweet.”

“We are enjoying the last couple days we have with Christine. She is a legend. She is a role model for us on and off the pitch. It’s going to be really hard to see her go but we’re just going to try to enjoy the next two matches and really give her the send-off she deserves. She would want us to go out swinging like we normally do. She more than anybody would not want to make the biggest occasion about her instead about the team. They [Sinclair and also-retiring national-team veteran Sophie Schmidt] were the two role models I really looked up to. They’ve done more than you can think of outside of soccer. They have paved the way for Canadian young females such as myself.”

Added emerging Canadian player Simi Awujo: “[Sinclair] is a pioneer for women’s soccer and there is so much respect for her. I’m thinking what is camp going to look like when she’s not there. I can’t imagine it. She’s just a big presence on and off the field. Everybody is happy to give her the send-off that she deserves.”

Host Australia humbled Canada 4-0 in the final group game of the 2023 FIFA World Cup in July at Melbourne to eliminate Canada and send it packing back across the Pacific. Now Canada gets its shot at revenge against the World Cup No. 4 Aussies, although Priestman had downplayed that angle.

Defending Tokyo Olympic-champion Canada returned from the 2023 World Cup debacle to qualify for Paris 2024 by beating Jamaica in a home-and-home CONCACAF Olympic qualifying set.

“This [Sinclair farewell tour] has made up for a difficult year,” said Priestman. “We will focus on who we are now.”

The Matildas, as the Australian team is known, went 3-0 against Iran, Taiwan and the Philippines in the opening round of Asian Olympic qualifying over the fall to reach the semifinal stage in February where the Matildas will play Uzbekistan in one home-and-home semifinal set and Japan and North Korea in the other to decide that region’s two qualifiers for Paris 2024.

The games against Canada at Starlight Stadium and B.C. Place, are important preparation games for Australia it looks ahead to the Olympic qualifier against Uzbekistan.

“Australia is a very good team and this will be a very good test going into the Olympic year,” said Priestman.

All amid that not-so-insignificant farewell Friday to a ­Canadian icon.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com