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One Hell of a Job: John Herdman and the hopes of a nation

John Herdman on the sidelines of BMO Field before the start of "The Rematch" between the U.S. and Canada. (Photo copyright Meg Linehan for The Equalizer.)

John Herdman is a man with a plan. The only problem is he’s down to 729 days to actually execute it. As the host country of the next Women’s World Cup, Canada has plenty of questions left to answer before kick-off on June 6, 2015 at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, Alberta.

This past Sunday in Toronto, the Canadian Women’s National Team lost 3-0 to the U.S. in front of 22,453 fans. Commonwealth Stadium can seat over 60,000. Sunday was only a taste of 2015.

Seven hundred twenty-nine days. The pressure’s on. But if John Herdman is feeling the pressure, he isn’t showing it.

Sure, in his post-game conference in the bowels of BMO Field on Sunday, he asked, a bit wistfully, “Lessen the expectations a bit, yeah?” He compared winning the bronze medal in the 2012 London Olympic Games to catching lightning in a bottle. But then he said, “But we did. And we can do it again.”

There are four key players that Herdman will lean on in the quest for winning the World Cup at home; four players that will need to create a dynamic and adaptive midfield regardless of the opponent’s style of play. Christine Sinclair, Diana Matheson, Melissa Tancredi, and Sophie Schmidt will be the foundation of Herdman’s World Cup roster.

Before the match against the U.S., Herdman spoke with The Equalizer and other media after wrapping the last training session of the week about his four key players, and most importantly, unlocking their potential by balancing their power with precision and control.

After the match, Herdman admitted the plan didn’t quite work (see the video below). On Thursday’s media call to discuss the two year mark until the WWC, Herdman again noted that there was a “slight under-performance from one or two players, but nobody choked.”

Nobody choked, but only one of his four key players had any real impact on the game. Tancredi still wasn’t match-fit for the full 90 after taking time off from the team for school; the U.S. effectively defended Sinclair for the entirety of the match; Schmidt struggled to find space against the likes of Heather O’Reilly and Carli Lloyd in the midfield. Only Diana Matheson was able to play her game against the United States.

Canada won’t win the World Cup with a 25 percent success rate. It couldn’t even win a friendly.

“The Rematch” is over though, and behind Herdman and the Canadian side. The intense spotlight focused on the team over the past week in Toronto and across the country is dark for now. The team will travel to Germany to play Silvia Neid’s Euro-bound squad on June 19. The CSA announced the next home match wouldn’t be until October 30th in Edmonton against South Korea.

Those two games are all a part of the plan. So was the U.S. on Sunday, even if the result wasn’t. In Thursday’s media call, Herdman explained he’s preparing Canada to face three tiers of teams.

The top tier consists of teams like the United States and Germany, teams that Canada will need to develop a resilient style of play against to weather a constant offensive barrage. Herdman said there’s still a need for Canada to finish better against quality, top-tier teams.

The second tier consists of teams like South Korea, which has given Canada problems before. (South Korea beat Canada 3-1 in the Four-Nations Tournament in China in January, though Canada’s roster was one of Herdman’s youthful experiments.) Herdman said the team needs to play a more “expansive style” against technical teams of this nature.

Finally, the third tier has its own challenges, with teams that like to defend deep and rely on the quick counterattack for offense. In Herdman’s mind, there’s still “a need to develop players that can break down tight defensive units.”

Canada will face all three of these tiers in the World Cup, and according to Herdman, “learn all of these styles and develop against them.” If he’s successful, Canada has plenty to rely on to get them through the typical ups and downs of any tournament play. Sinclair’s magical finishing ability, the bright future of Kadeisha Buchanan, the boost of a passionate home crowd as time winds down. If BMO Field is any indication, expect the summer of 2015 to be awash in a sea of red and white.

There’s another major component to Canada’s 2015 prep: the National Women’s Soccer League. There are pros and cons for Canadian players in the league, but Herdman thinks they balance each other out. The biggest takeaway for him is the quality of play.

Before the NWSL, if he brought players into camp, his players were only competing against each other. There was “no growth” to their game. He also said it increased their comfort level and removed the challenge from the game. In the NWSL, his team has to “fight for their shirt for seven months.” On the other hand, some of his players are carrying injuries, or are tired from travel and the demands of a club season.

Herdman likes the shorter NWSL season though. It will let him bring the team in for four months of residency after league action concludes for the year at the end of August. Then he can bring his players in to a “specialist facility” where they will get “mended, fixed, and ready to go again.”

He also thought it was important to limit international obligations during the league’s season, and made specific mention of attempting to be as harmonious as possible with the club experience for his team. (Something his southern counterparts have gotten criticism on, considering the U.S. team’s international obligations this month alone.)

In the biggest twist for promoting competition and depth for his side, Herdman also said that all contracts for Canadian players are only for a year. In July, he will start to review the first half of the season for the players in the league. During the allocation process, it was “very clear that it was an annual thing with a thorough review.”

Herdman envisions a “revolving door” of talent, and using the NWSL to develop promising players fresh out of college, and for competition for NWSL allocations spots to be healthy. He also spoke briefly about the possibility for expansion in Canada, and alluded to discussions already taking place. There were no specific details on this front, but for Herdman, with the hype of 2015 bearing down on Canada, “it’s a great time to get involved with it.”

The continued presence for national players in the NWSL will only help with the depth problems on the Canadian bench, and for allowing Herdman to have quality looks at young players who need game time experience. It might also give him the chance to poach another dual citizen like Rachel Quon from the United States’s development system. (On that front, Quon’s eligibility still hasn’t been cleared by FIFA.)

Two years isn’t a huge amount of time to cultivate this theoretical new Canadian talent either, plus prepare new players for the three tiers of competition, plus develop chemistry with the existing starters.

“It’s counting down,” Herdman replied after being asked if the two years to the start of the World Cup felt like a long time. “Every camp we have together, we have to tick certain boxes.”

The game plan is set. The search for Canadian talent continues. “We’re looking anywhere right at the moment.” After Sinclair, Matheson, Schmidt, and Tancredi, there are still “major questions” for Canada.

“Winning the World Cup in Canada is gonna be one hell of a job,” Herdman said on Sunday. He has 729 days. The spotlight is waiting.

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