National team foes unite in Portland

Thorns forward Christine Sinclair is the star of the Canadian national team, but she played collegiately in Portland and considers the city her home. AP Photo/Don Ryan

BOSTON -- On a recent sweltering afternoon, Portland Thorns goalkeepers Karina LeBlanc and Adelaide Gay found themselves speed-walking toward the practice field where the rest of their teammates were already kicking around the ball.

"Did you get lost?" asked Thorns head coach Cindy Parlow Cone.

"No, not at all," said LeBlanc, sounding as sarcastic as possible. "Why would you say that?"

LeBlanc and Gay were the final two members of the squad to arrive; the others had been trickling in for the previous 15 minutes, small groups of players who had piled into rental cars, responsible for finding their own way to the Harvard athletic fields.

But Cone wasn't looking to chew out any stragglers. For one thing, the practice site was tricky to find, nestled on the opposite side of the Charles River from the university. And with a mid-July heat wave melting the East Coast, the coach was trying to take it easy on her players, squeezing in a one-hour workout before Portland's game against the Boston Breakers the next day.

When the Thorns are on the road, they typically rent five or six cars, rather than a charter bus, for travel within a city, to give players flexibility during downtime. There are 20 women on the team's roster, and not all of them want to eat at the same restaurants or partake in the same off-day excursions.

Take, for example, LeBlanc and Gay, a pair of keepers who reflect the diverse interests and backgrounds on the squad. The 33-year-old LeBlanc hails from the island of Dominica, moved to Canada with her family when she was 8, attended the University of Nebraska and loves watching "The Bachelorette." The 23-year-old Gay grew up in New Jersey, graduated from North Carolina last year (after transferring from Yale following her freshman season) and enjoys skeet shooting.

As with any club, the patchwork of players can lead to some intriguing storylines, none more obvious than the various national team allegiances among the Thorns, as well as on the seven other squads that make up the National Women's Soccer League.

LeBlanc splits her time between the Thorns and the Canadian national team, as does star forward Christine Sinclair, while their Portland teammates Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath and Rachel Buehler suit up for the United States. Of course, those two countries provided one of the most dramatic matches in women's soccer history when they met in the semifinals of the 2012 Olympic Summer Games, a game in which the U.S. overcame three goals by Sinclair, winning 4-3 in overtime, amid controversy over two key calls that went against the Canadians.

So, the question often goes, how do they all press pause on that international rivalry and come together as teammates?

Quite easily, it turns out. "I feel like people make a bigger deal of it than it is," said Sinclair, who played at the University of Portland and still calls that city home. "I've played on the same team as some of these players before, and this is no different. It's the same as on the men's side. Players on Barcelona play club together and then compete against each other internationally. It's two completely different focuses."

Sinclair makes a good point. But the new intensity of the U.S.-Canada rivalry -- which had long been lopsided in the Americans' favor -- is hard to ignore. A recent exhibition match between the two nations, held on Canadian soil, sold out in a matter of hours. "The rivalry has always been there, but I think it's taken on a whole new level because Canada keeps getting better and better," Cone said. "And now they are vying for World Cups and Olympic gold medals."

Canada will host the Women's World Cup for the first time in 2015, and Sinclair believes the country's fan base could eventually support one or two franchises in the NWSL, if the league proves to have staying power. "I think the popularity of the women's game in Canada is rising to meet what it is in the U.S.," Sinclair said. "After what we did in London, people care. They're paying attention."

As Sinclair points out, there is a different pace to club life. Playing for a national team usually carries a greater sense of urgency -- condensed training camps followed by pressure-packed tournaments with serious hardware on the line. "Here with Portland, it's more day-in and day-out for four or five straight months," she said. "But with the national team, you're fighting for Olympic medals and World Cup medals, so there is a different intensity around that."

If anything, the steady nature of league play allows national team rivals a chance to bond and find common ground. "Obviously, when they put on their national team jerseys, they are ready to go after each other," Cone said. "But when they put on their Portland Thorns jerseys, they are pulling for each other."

In other words, even though the Thorns take separate cars, they all end up at the same destination.