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Can Canada Win Gold in Rio? Women’s Soccer Coach John Herdman Weighs In

Can Canada Win Gold in Rio? Women’s Soccer Coach John Herdman Weighs In

John Herdman has been all over the place since the Canadian women’s national soccer team booked its spot in Brazil during February’s Olympic qualifier. The tournament in Houston was the first leg in a whirlwind couple of months for the man in charge. He has been to Portugal and Croatia, with pit stops at home (Vancouver) and in the homeland (England) in between. He will be on the road again soon, with Canada visiting the Netherlands for a friendly next Sunday. But before the last leg of the road to Rio begins, John made a quick trip to Toronto, stopping by the Star on Friday to talk about confidence, tight shirts and getting his team back on the Olympic podium:

Is soccer part of your fabric?

Yeah, it’s all I know. It’s all I’ve got as well. But I think, when I say it’s all I know, it’s really been interesting because football’s been a vehicle for us to develop leadership skills, leadership knowledge and understanding, develop understanding on relationships, communication, strategic planning, a whole raft of things. Football’s just been a vehicle for that, so when I say it’s all I know, I guess it’s been the foundation for everything I’ve become.

You describe yourself as an “OK” central midfielder in your playing days. If you could go back and play professionally instead of coach, would you?

(Long pause) I don’t know. Do you know something? If you had asked me that like 25 years ago, I’d have just looked at you sideways and went, “Really?” Everybody wanted to be a pro footballer. But I don’t know if I could live in that world, in that culture. That dog-eat-dog, money-driven, egotistical world. I don’t know if it’s me. I really don’t know. I’m pushing my son in that direction at the minute, you know? It’s a great question. I don’t know.

The offer from Canada Soccer to coach the national team came in 2011. You accepted. As you were on the plane overseas, you had what you call an “Oh s—” moment. Why?

Because I didn’t think I had what it took to work with (Christine) Sinclair. I was wracking my brain. Pretty much all my career, I’d been working with developmental players. And now you’re coming to work with a Michael Jordan of the women’s game. I remember thinking, “What’s she going to think of us?” It was just that self-confidence, that vulnerability of, “What am I going to add to this woman’s game?”

Sinclair will be 33 years old this year, which is prompting questions about retirement, but she is still the crown jewel when it comes to Canadian soccer. Do you let her play as long as she wants?

Yeah. Sinc, whenever you look at her statistics, she’s right up there. She’s a phenomenal athlete. Look at our technical data; she is consistently Canada’s highest performer in terms of her technical contribution in a game. So while she may not always score goals, because teams figure out how to stop her, her forward pass completion, her number of turns, her ability to open teams up with the types of passes that some players don’t make, is still No.1 in the team. I think people don’t see that.

The United States women’s team asked the U.S. Soccer Federation for equal pay this week. What do you think of their demands?

It’s American business. It’s like asking a Newcastle fan what’s happening at Sunderland; it’s none of our business. I think the U.S., the women’s team have done some amazing things there. They feel they’ve got some questions they need to ask their association. That’s their business, and so be it. Here in Canada we just have to keep focusing on being successful at the Olympics, because that team goes to the podium every single time.

Goalkeeper Erin McLeod injured her ACL playing for FC Rosengard last month and might not be available for the Olympics. What kind of impact would her absence have on the team?

She’s been a massive part of everything I’ve been involved with, with this team. We took her on board as the No. 1 (keeper) in London and, after taking that No. 1 slot, she never looked back. I think she’s been the best keeper in the world for the last three years. I think the reality on that is Canada can’t replace a player like that.

Is this Canadian women’s team good enough to win back-to-back medals at the Olympics?

I think the evidence would suggest no at this point. But prior to London, all the evidence suggested they were nowhere near a podium. What I can say is when I took the team on, nine months prior to the Olympics in 2012, the team was a mess, the system was a mess. But we’re in a better position now to make this happen. I believe that the young players we’ve brought into the team, and the culture that’s been created by the veterans to welcome them in, gives us a chance to really have a push. I’m not writing it off but if you were just being a betting person looking at the statistics, you’d say, yeah, it’s highly unlikely.

Finally, your fashion sense also gets a lot of attention. What is it with the tight shirts?

Here’s the issue, right? So: I can wear a medium. But a medium, because I’m small, looks too big on us. Or I can wear a small. But really, I’m like a “smedium,” aren’t I? And they don’t create “smediums.” So if I wear a small, then they look tight on us. Or tighter, in certain situations. I’m sort of stuck in the middle. Maybe I have to be the person that actually creates the “smedium” for the first time ever. That’s it; that would be the brand.

You should get Erin (McLeod’s) fashion line (Peau De Loup) to create one for you.

I’ve asked her. I’ve actually asked Erin. I’ve said, “I can’t deal with this.” But anyway, it’s good banter.

Laura Armstrong/Toronto Star/April, 2016