Hopes were high for Canada as they arrived at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011™ with the 2010 CONCACAF championship in hand, but after a respectable 2-1 loss to the hosts in the Opening Match, the Canucks began to crumble. Captain Christine Sinclair had broken her nose, and after a crushing 4-0 defeat by France, the Canadians were unable to find an answer and ultimately did not collect a single point as they finished the tournament at the group stage with a disappointing 1-0 loss to Nigeria.
And with the premature departure from the global showpiece, so too came the exit of Italian coach Carolina Morace, who had developed the squad over the course of two years into a more possession-based side, diverging away from the direct attacking approach that had long been a staple of the Canadian game. However, Canada’s physical style seemed to dwindle as a result and now tasked with nurturing a new approach for women’s football in Canada is former New Zealand coach John Herdman.
With the country set to host North, Central America, and Caribbean qualifying for the Women's Olympic Football Tournament London 2012 and the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2015, the Englishman has described his first month in charge of the squad as a "bit of a whirlwind". But already with two games under his belt against USA, Herdman has seen an optimistic response from his players post-FIFA Women's World Cup as they seek to build Canada into a top-four ranked squad.
“I think we have started that journey," Herdman told FIFA.com. “I think it is key to get back on the bike. They have played football all their lives and I am sure they have had ups and downs at different times in their careers. They are pretty professional and an energetic group. The last month I’ve had with them has been really positive."
Herdman, who guided Oceania side New Zealand to twice qualify for the FIFA Women’s World Cup (2007, 2011) and appear at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, oversaw a draw and a loss to USA in his first two outings in September, and is now set to steer the Canucks at the Pan American Games, which started yesterday in Guadalajara. Canada picked up their first win under Herdman with a 3-1 defeat of Costa Rica to open the tournament and are now set to face Argentina and Brazil next in the group stage.
Mixing the past and present
While the squad list for both the USA friendlies and the Pan American Games had to be submitted prior to Herdman’s arrival as coach, the 36-year-old is still anticipating the tournament to be a vital opportunity to get to know the talent pool and initiate a more collaborative approach with his players. “I think when you are looking at the style and the philosophy around how you are going to play with a team, the players have a major input in to that,” Herdman said.
“And speaking to the players they certainly want to carry on with a modern brand of football – make sure we are aggressed with modern trends and playing a system and style that meets the demands of the modern women’s game. I think the players are really comfortable with carrying on with a possession-based game, being able to play quick in transition and what they want to add is a great level of physicality."
Upon his arrival in Canada, Herdman quickly came to the realisation that the team felt they had lost their identity. Hard tackles and an authoritative defence have often been primary identifiers of the women’s game in Canada, and in Herdman’s first meetings with squad, the players expressed their interest in reviving that former style while maintaining their more-recent development built under Morace. “They want to be able to impose themselves on teams like I think Canada of the past did, while trying to marry up a more modern style of attacking football,” he explained.
Although Herdman tasted success as New Zealand coach, guiding the minnows to world competitions, the intrigue of potentially greater triumphs await as the Canadian Soccer Association commence an era of added investment in women’s football ahead of 2015. Herdman, who has a clear eye on first qualifying for the Olympics in January, has said there are various layers of structure that must be addressed in order to progress as a world power in women’s football, starting at youth level.
“I think there is a strategic level sitting underneath the World Cup bar, which involves a significant investment to develop more world-class players: more [Christine] Sinclairs, more often."
To produce that talent, Herdman has expressed the significance of building a solid group at the U-17 and U-20 level that will eventually flow in to the senior squad come time for the next FIFA Women’s World Cup and creating a precise vision for that player development. He said: “From what I have seen in the past there has been level alignment between what happens at the U-14 through to the senior national team. There has been a clear picture of what’s required to develop those top class players”.
With the future of the women’s game having significant importance in Canada, Herdman has set his expectations high as he expects record-goalscorer Sinclair to be in the prime of her career at London 2012 and to also act as the cornerstone of the team while he begins his search for younger players.
“We are in a high-performance environment, we’ve got a fantastic women’s playing population here, our talent pool is strong and with some structural changes I think this team really could cement itself a place in that top four,” Herdman said of his lofty ambitions with Canada. “But it is going to take time and investment outside of the women’s team. You've got to shoot for the stars and I think with this country it is realistic to say this team could land among them.”