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Kara Lang, Canada's Second-Greatest Women's Soccer Player, Retires at Age 24

Kara Lang, formerly of the Canadian women's national team and the Vancouver Whitecaps, handles the ball during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. (Koji Watanbe/Getty Images)
Kara Lang, formerly of the Canadian women's national team and the Vancouver Whitecaps, handles the ball during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. (Koji Watanbe/Getty Images)

I know certain of my readers don't care about women's soccer and don't understand why I care either. You folks might want to just skip this one, but I hope you'll make an exception. This is far from the everyday of Canadian soccer. This is the end to one of its longest, least satisfying stories.

A Canadian international, without question the second-most accomplished player in the history of our women's program, is retiring. A Canadian international who happens also to be a member of the Vancouver Whitecaps ladies, who has represented our country with class and aplomb, and is a major reason I have any interested in North American soccer at all. But also a Canadian who has suffered three major knee injuries, who has seen abortive comeback after abortive comeback, and who now steps away from the game at the age of twenty-four. Kara Lang is two months older than me, and she's calling it quits. That twice-injured right knee simply couldn't take it anymore.

Life isn't fair, and neither is soccer. Well, that's not news. But running down Lang's accomplishments emphasizes the enormity of what the soccer gods have taken from us. She has thirty-four international goals in ninety-two games, playing mostly in midfield. She's the youngest woman ever to score a senior international goal, burying one against Wales when she was 15. At the Women's U-19 World Championships, the largest single-sport competition ever held in Canada, Lang was Canada's best player (and I make no apologies for a prodigal Christine Sinclair when I say that). When healthy, which was not nearly often enough, Lang was not only athletically gifted but obviously Canada's most skilled attacker. A young Sinclair succeeded by strength, power, and sheer daring: a young Lang got goals by working her way past defenders one at a time, none able to cope with her combination of agility and footwork, and then unleashing a shot straight from the Ali Gerba cookbook, knocking a goalkeeper's head off at thirty yards if she wasn't careful. Watching a young Kara Lang in person, I could only wonder to myself how she could possibly not be the greatest player in women's history.

Well, I guess I know now.

So, farewell then, Kara Lang. You deserved to be the ambassador of women's soccer in Canada. You deserved to be on the front line of our attack rather than a cautionary tale and a sad example. You deserved better than you got. Hopefully the memories of crazy women's-soccer-loving madmen like myself will make up for that.

The problem with looking back at Kara Lang's career is that every statement must be coloured by the phrase "what if?" Of course Christine Sinclair was a better striker for both club and country than Lang. This is so amazingly obvious that not even in the contrarian world of Canadian soccer fandom will you find somebody to dispute this. Yet some of the diehard Lang supporters, of whom I am one, insist that Lang had all the talent to be better than Sinclair. Early in her career, Sinclair was obviously talented but first and foremost she was an athletic marvel. Relatively tall, powerful, pretty quick considering her size, and with a shot both strong and accurate. In the early days of Canadian women's soccer, the strategy of head coach Even Pellerud was basically "knock the ball way the hell forward, get it to Christine, let her hit it as hard as she can" and it pretty much worked. Sinclair was tailor-made to play for a tactically limited team and feast on the minnows of women's soccer: what could an inferior team, which at the time described everybody in CONCACAF but the Americans, do against that?

In such a tactical setting, Lang was rather a third wheel. She's actually an inch taller than Sinclair but far less physically imposing. She lacked Sinclair's ability to absorb a shoulder charge or simply run past the hard challenge. She did have Sinclair's shot (and in spades), but in the long ball system she seldom got a chance to unleash it. Lang was best with the ball at her feet, making defenders miss, working cheeky passing plays, and generally doing all the things Even Pellerud viewed as anathema. She was wasted under Pellerud, played a great deal of midfield simply because she could string passes together and not given a chance to use her skills to the fullest. What-if number one, right there.

The comparisons to Christine Sinclair do not end here. For when Pellerud was finally replaced by the stern, ambitious, and magnificently suitable Carolina Morace, Sinclair responded magnificently. Previously, she had always looked vaguely out of shape on the field, but a renewed commitment to training had Sinclair looking better than ever. She added endurance and agility to her considerable movelist. Receiving all sorts of service from her teammates in a team that now emphasized skill and finesse, Sinclair worked hard to keep up and proved the best pupil of all. Morace's strategy was far more team-oriented, far less "hoof it to Sinclair and hope", and yet from this non-dominant role, Sinclair emerged as a far greater player than she had ever before been. Today, we speak of Sinclair as one of the five best women's players in the world, a staggering accomplishment. Could Lang have wrought a similar transformation? With a style seemingly better-suited to Morace's from the start, could she too have taken a similar leap from mere stardom into the ranks of the greatest players in women's soccer history?

Of course, now we'll never know. Lang began her soccer career playing off-and-on for the Whitecaps women in 2003, and even playing part-time while going to high school she was obviously dominant as a teenager at the W-League level. Lang was highly courted by all the top American universities and wound up playing at UCLA. In her first year with the Bruins, Lang scored seventeen goals (seventeen!) in only twenty-four games. She walked away with PAC-10 honours and an NCAA finals appearance, where she lost to the University of Portland led by — and if it wasn't such an obvious piece of symbolism then it would almost be ironic — Christine Sinclair.

Soon, Lang wasn't walking away with anything. During the off-season of 2005-06, Lang tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee. The injury was so serious that Lang missed the entire 2006 NCAA season, and when she returned in 2007 it was in clearly diminished form. Lang produced only seven goals in sixteen starts plus one more appearance off the bench. That was still good enough for her to be an honourable mention to the all-Pac-10 team, but she was obviously no longer the same player. Twenty years old and past her prime, Lang's production dipped again as a senior but she had the satisfaction of walking away with an undefeated season in the Pac-10 before losing in the NCAA semi-final.

Lang left UCLA after her senior year, staying in Los Angeles as a professional with the Pali Blues of the W-League. But that did not last long: in September of 2009, Lang re-injured her right ACL and was ruled out for the remainder of the W-League season.

The comeback, when it came, seemed to be going well. Re-surfacing with the lady Whitecaps in June of 2010, Lang played eight games and scored a goal. Though she played unremarkably and was clearly struggling for fitness, she also showed her old deft touch at times and was obviously a contributing part of a very good Whitecaps squad. Lang also received a call-up to the 2010 CONCACAF World Cup qualifying campaign, coming off the bench against Costa Rica and scoring a goal in a start against Guyana. She would make only four appearances for the national team in 2010, and one start with just the one goal, but the comeback seemed to be on.

So why walk away now? Lang hinted that she had come back too early from her second injury, that recovery was more difficult than she had expected, but she played eight W-League games and four national team matches since that injury, in addition to all the required training. Is she sick of the pain and the effort? If so, who could blame her? Or is it that, with Lang clearly no longer the player she once was, Carolina Morace quietly informed Lang that she would not be likely to make the 2011 World Cup roster? To step aside so close to a major tournament is unlike Lang, who has been a warrior her entire career. Perhaps she simply no longer saw the light at the end of the tunnel, and wanted to leave on her own terms rather than be remembered as the once-promising young woman who tried to hold on too long.

She need not have worried. As long as there are Canadian soccer supporters, Kara Lang will be remembered as one of the greatest players in our history. Nothing about the way her career ended could have changed that.