Richard Starnes of The Ottawa Citizen recently profiled John Herdman, Head Coach of the Canadian Senior Women’s National Soccer Team:
Imagine this. Canada becomes the darling of women’s international soccer, winning the Women’s World Cup 2015 on home soil. It does so by playing the game as no women’s team ever has — like Spain’s men, like Lionel Messi and his Barcelona pals.
In the process it establishes itself as the team that changed the women’s program forever. And it is enveloped in a massive congratulatory bear hug by a captivated nation.
That’s the vision bouncing around inside coach John Herdman’s head.
Last summer at the Olympics, Canada played the United States in perhaps the best women’s soccer match ever. The Americans won in controversial fashion in the dying seconds, but Canada played a style their rivals had not seen before.
Halfway through the game, veteran U.S. midfielder Lori Lindsay — a substitute on the day — approached Herdman.
“What the hell have you done to that team,” she told him. “I’ve never seen Canada play like that. They played us off the pitch at times.”
That, if Herdman needed it, was confirmation that this was the way forward.
“It was a style of football that says, ‘There’s the future,’ ” he told me.
It is the style he grew up watching at home in Newcastle, the passing game, the ball on the ground with creative players in wide positions. We’re talking Barcelona, we’re talking the back-to-back-to-back Spanish men’s team that won Euro 2008, the World Cup in 2010 and Euro 2012.
“Imagine us being the first women’s team able to play that way,” Herdman says, his eyes sparkling, his body language filled with self belief. “Then combine that with the powerful Canadian athlete and the precision counter-attacking that’s part of our DNA. Phew! That would be pretty amazing.”
Pretty amazing, indeed. Can any of us remember a coach in any sport suggesting with such modest authority that such an ambitious goal can be reached?
Herdman has a great deal to work on, starting with convincing we Canadians that team results will get worse before they get better. He is pleading for patience and has been smart enough to warn the public honestly and often before the plan is properly up and running.
It is necessary to acknowledge our women’s group has been a golden generation for 10 years, led by the superlative talent of Christine Sinclair. Perhaps that is why, to a damaging degree, development of younger players and their integration into the international squad has lagged far behind.
There has been no room for up-and-comers and without international playing time they wither away. That is why the most important pillar in Herdman’s ambitious scheme is the integration of young talent in the national squad.
As Canada moves to reinvent itself every minute between now and the summer of 2015 is precious.
The coach is lucky to be able to rely on the golden generation for a while longer and he regards them as such a special group that they will, to a player, be eager to pass on their experience. They speak of the thrill of being in the forefront of a culture change for the women’s game. They want to show the world by doing it.
“The key message is that in 2013 and ’14, we will take two steps back,” Herdman said. “We will put the players back in the learning pit and look at some younger ones to see if they fit the new profile. If they are ready, fine. If not, we will stick with what we’ve got.”
That was the message he gave me before Christmas. Since then, he has undertaken his first playing test with three games in the just-completed Yongchuan Cup in China. The team, including seven players making their debuts, finished second, beating China 1-0, losing to South Korea 3-1 and tying tournament winners Norway 0-0. All this without Sinclair — serving a ban over protests following the U.S. Olympic match.
Herdman was pleased. He spoke of some strong passages of play using the new style of pass-and-move, pace and keeping the ball on the ground much of the time. Plenty still to be done, he warned.
While this is gathering momentum, Herdman has issued a second warning. He has discovered the connection between youth and seniors is weak and must change.
The Americans, the Germans, the Japanese, all have such well-established development programs that when Player A begins to fade on the national team, there is a newcomer waiting to step straight in. Hardly a beat is missed because the new players understand the system. They do not need to be re-coached.
The new style under the Herdman plan will begin with the really young. Here’s what he dreams of here.
“I’d like the soccer mom to watch the World Cup and go: ‘Wow. So that’s how they play.’ The ball doesn’t leave the ground, they pass it on two touches. Imagine that with five-, six-, seven-, eight-year-olds. You change the culture for ever.”
So the race is on to astonish the world in 2015. It’s a gigantic, ambitious undertaking and we will be watching closely, remembering of course that our women might take its share of spankings along the way
Not to worry, says Herdman. It’s something to live with for the greater good. “People just stay with us.”
From The Ottawa Citizen, January 20 2013.