Being on the same page is crucial in football. Whether it is a club or a national team program, having synergy is key to developing successful players and teams. A case in point is Canada and their women’s national team program.
Coming off a second straight Women’s Olympic Football Tournament bronze medal, Canada’s focus in the latter part of 2016 has been on the future. Earlier this month, their youngest prospects got a chance to experience the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Jordan 2016. In November, the focus will turn to the South Pacific and the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Papua New Guinea 2016, where Canada have had strong showings in previous editions.
The North American nation’s involvement in women’s football’s top youth competitions is part of a plan that Canadian senior coach John Herdman established two years ago. Called the EXCEL program, the aim is to give Canadian players a clearer pathway to the highest levels of the women’s game, a concept the Englishman put in place during his time as New Zealand coach.
“With the EXCEL pathway, it is meant to be a stake in the ground to be clear that this is a pathway for players on their path to the [Canadian] women’s national team,” Herdman told FIFA.com. “This is Canada’s most talented group of players in a best-with-best stream, accumulating over 4,000 hours of development over a six-year period on a progressive program to become a national team player.
“I’d done some work in New Zealand back in 2008 and 2009, which was travelling the world looking at the world’s best practices in talent development and identification. Some were world leaders and others were emerging nations. Some had been very successful like a Japan with a limited population.
“That research helped form the change to the national development framework in New Zealand, so fresh off the back of that coming into Canada [in 2011], it was amazing to see the similarities and parallels you could draw between the two countries. It was a fragmented structure across different [Canadian] provinces that was not really coordinated in one direction.”
A key component of the EXCEL program is the close working relationship that Herdman has with the coaches of Canada’s youth teams. Fellow compatriots, U-17 coach Beverly Priestman and U-20 coach Daniel Worthington, not only coach Canada’s top young talent, they each oversee the age-group components of the program as directors. Priestman is responsible for the U-14 to U-17 portion of EXCEL, while Worthington is in charge of the U-18 to U-23 pathway.
“My role, in that capacity, is to bring [the players] through and expose them at the right time in the right opportunities with the right curriculum to actually block their learning in place, so when they get to John [senior team], he has a player that has gone through a series of learning stages, tournament experiences and sessions to have the experience to step into a senior environment,” Worthington said.
Creating a style
One of the main objectives of the EXCEL program at the regional and national level in Canada is to produce players that are comfortable playing an effective style of play in the women’s game. For Herdman, the process centres around three components in a 4-3-3 formation.
“At the youth level, we’ve got a very clear philosophy,” he said. “We identified some DNA aspects, which are control, power and precision. The precision is about counter-attacking, which is a key part of the women’s game, while power is about our defensive strategy. Every team that we work with has a mindset to read a game within four or five passes, which is our mantra. The control piece is what Canada has been lacking, which is possession with real purpose. What we’ve aimed with these particular age groups is to put more emphasis on control, rather than power and precision.”
Expect that philosophy to be on display in Papua New Guinea when Canada faces Spain, Nigeria and Japan in Group B at this year’s U-20 Women’s World Cup. While Canada’s focus will be on their game plan, Worthington is aware that they face a real test of their abilities.
“Looking at the groups, there’s no easy groups at the U-20’s. Teams have different approaches,” he said. “When you come to Spain, they’ve got a system where from U-17 and U-20 to the senior team, they play the same way. That’s the way we’re pushing towards in our EXCEL program. Then we’re going to be playing against Nigeria that are unorthodox at times. Then everyone knows Japan and the way they play, so it poses some great challenges for us.”