Sinclair's collegiate career among all-time greats

CARY, N.C. -- For all the things that make Christine Sinclair special on a pitch, former Portland teammate Megan Rapinoe still needed just two simple words to explain the one ingredient that made Sinclair arguably the best player in the history of women's college soccer.

"Her mind," Rapinoe said after she finished practicing with the U.S. national team, which was prepping to take on Sinclair and bitter rival Canada in an international friendly. The U.S. went on to hold Sinclair and the Canadians scoreless, 2-0.

"She's really smart in the game," Rapinoe continued. "I feel like she sees the game in slow motion, compared to what it feels like to me."

No slouch herself, Rapinoe was echoing a common sentiment about Sinclair, one shared by everyone from overmatched college defenders to world-class international players. Quiet and reserved, although entirely friendly, Sinclair has yet to cause a ripple off the field despite acting like a force of nature on it. Since debuting for the Canadian national team in 2000 at age 16 and for Portland in the fall of 2001, she's scored 166 goals in 172 games between the two teams.

If it's true that she's able to slow down the game in her mind, the result has certainly left opponents feeling like they're moving in slow motion.

The one thing Sinclair couldn't slow down was time, although that's a bigger loss for us as fans than it is for her as she prepares for a fall without college soccer but full of new challenges.

The native of British Columbia accomplished just about everything imaginable before departing Portland: winning two national championships, the 2006 Honda Broderick Cup as the nation's best female college athlete and two Hermann Trophy awards as the top women's soccer player (for good measure, she even took a year off to help lead Canada to the semifinals of the 2003 World Cup).

It was the kind of staggering success that demanded attention for the sport.

"I think that's the biggest thing," Sinclair said about the spotlight afforded to soccer when she beat out well-known names like Seimone Augustus and Cat Osterman for the Honda Cup. "I don't know, you don't really expect a soccer player to win it. You think of basketball or even volleyball. And also to come from a tiny school, I think it just goes to show the recognition soccer is getting, the University of Portland is getting. It was nice."

In winning, did Sinclair have the best career in NCAA history? It's a tough question to answer definitively, and supporters of Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers and others might have strong cases to the contrary. But Sinclair undoubtedly earned a place in the conversation during her four seasons, becoming a dominating individual presence and lifting an already illustrious program to new heights, even as the college game saw unparalleled competitive parity.

All of which adds just a touch of melancholy to this preseason, knowing that she won't be back.

To be sure, it's not a sadness in any sort of profound or life-altering sense -- that's something Sinclair and the entire Portland soccer know all too well after Clive Charles, legendary coach and steward of the men's and women's programs at the school, passed away in 2003 following a battle with cancer.

But there is something undeniably bittersweet when a star like Sinclair departs the college stage, leaving even diehard season-ticket holders at Merlo Field to wonder whether they truly appreciated every opportunity to savor Sinclair's skills. Like returning to your hometown and finding familiar landmarks linked to good memories have given way to landmarks that will be familiar for a new generation, the soccer landscape will seem different this season. And at least for a while, watching Portland, a team that returns most of its starters and isn't going to fade away, will be as much about noticing what isn't there as observing what is.

Perhaps still too close to that last morning lecture or final exam, Sinclair at first dismissed any notions of her own set of withdrawal pains.

"Don't really miss going to class or doing the homework," she said with a smile. "It's nice to be on these trips with the national team and not have to worry about school."

But after pausing momentarily, the kind of contemplative interruption that marks a conversation with her, she continued, "But I miss my teammates, and I'm going to miss, once they start the season, playing in the games."

And it's those memories that appear to matter the most to Sinclair. Sounding almost embarrassed when she talks about the individual honors her career generated, she speaks more confidently in discussing the soccer family at Portland and the multitude of former players who remain involved in the program.

Said Sinclair, "Clive, who passed away, he said 'You don't just go the University of Portland for four years.'"

It's that continuity between classes and generations of players that will ensure Charles' legacy never fades away at the school. But at the same time, Sinclair is one of the last players at Portland directly linked to Charles. Together, legendary coach and star recruit helped earn the first national championship in program history in 2002.

It turned out to be Charles' final season.

"It's every day," Sinclair said of his continuing impact. "It's how you conduct yourself in and around the game but also in normal life -- the respect that you should show everyone. I think that he passed that on to everyone he coached. It's just how he was."

They are lessons that Sinclair will continue to rely on as she focuses even more time on helping the Canadian national team regain the momentum that stalled when the team failed to qualify for the 2004 Olympics.

While the Canadians would surely like to create their own identity, it's hard not to see a little of Akers and Hamm -- stars of different generations whose paths crossed at a time when the national team enjoyed unprecedented growth -- in Charmaine Hooper and Sinclair. A pioneer of the women's game in Canada, one of the players around since they had to pay their own way to tournaments, Hooper remains a physical and effective striker at 38. But Sinclair is clearly the future and knows the role comes with certain leadership demands.

"First of all, I don't necessarily think [a leader] has to be someone that is always the loudest," Sinclair said. "I mean, I am by no means the loudest person on our team. But it's someone the players the respect, someone who is willing to voice the team's concerns to the coaching staff. But also, the way I am, it's more of a leader on the field; I lead more by example -- hopefully."

Even if rumors of a revived professional league in the United States don't prove true, Sinclair's soccer career is really just beginning. Her legacy will be shaped not only by what she does to help Canada qualify and perform well in China the next two summers at the 2007 World Cup and 2008 Olympics, but by what she does in international competitions for the next decade or more.

But wherever she goes, she'll take the memories of her time at Portland with her. And as fans, we'll undoubtedly do the same.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.