Eh Game

On John Herdman, the unlikely man who saved the Canadian women’s soccer team

Canadian defender Carmelina Moscato gives coach John Herdman an ice shower Thursday.The largest contrast between the Canadian women's soccer team's dismal three-loss performance at the 2011 Women's World Cup and their bronze-medal showing at these Olympics wasn't a change in the players on the pitch, but rather a different coach on the sidelines. Under one foreigner, Italian Carolina Morace, the Canadian team crashed and burned at the World Cup, losing 2-1 to Germany, 4-0 to France and 1-0 to Nigeria. Under her replacement, British coach John Herdman (who had been coaching the New Zealand women), a largely similar roster made it through Olympic qualifying and redeemed themselves spectacularlywith a victory over France in Thursday's bronze-medal match. That's no coincidence. Herdman's time in charge of the Canadian team has been nothing short of spectacular, and he's elevated what looked like a struggling squad last year into one that feels it can compete with anyone in the world.

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This isn't merely an outside opinion, but one endorsed by several players. ConsiderCanadian hero and closing ceremonies flag-bearer candidate Christine Sinclair, who after Thursday's match was remarkably candid with CTV about how Herdman's turned the program around. "John came on board and he's completely changed it," she said. "He's completely changed the attitude of this team. We believe we can beat anyone in the world and we've done it." Sinclair expanded on that in a post-match press conference, saying that Herdman's changes helped her go from frustrated talent to key piece of the Canadian puzzle:

"I put so much time into this program, and then to finish last at the World Cup, it was heartbreaking, and it was almost like, are we ever going to get there? You know? And then he came along, and he's pushed me to new heights as an individual, as a player. He's really upped my responsibility with the team, off the field."

Those aren't new opinions; defender/midfielder Carmelina Moscato made similar remarks at the conclusion of January's qualifying campaign, saying ""The journey with John has been incredible"and "I think we're at a place in our program where we're really taking some strides forward." Moscato also cited Herdman's instillation of the belief that Canada can compete with anyone, saying "It's a mindset shift more than anything." Make no mistake, there is a massive mindset shift here; Herdman's guarantee of a victory in the bronze-medal match was almost unique in Canadian sports, and he's followed that up withan even bolder challenge to his team to win the 2015 World Cup at home. As Thursday's heroine Diana Matheson said before the team headed to London, this team's approach has changed dramatically from their last Olympics:

"Last time, there was a bit of a 'happy to be there' attitude," Matheson said. "This time around, we're going in to get a result."

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While the mindset and the leadership may be a crucial part of what Herdman's brought, he's contributed key on-pitch changes to the Canadian team too. Perhaps the most important is how he's synthesized elements of the physical style the Canadians were known for under former coach Even Pellerud with the more technically and tactically-focused approach Morace unsuccessfully tried to implement. That's led to the ascension of players like Matheson and Desiree "The Destroyer" Scott, two midfielders who mark and tackle hard but are also gifted creators and distributors.

If Morace had a key failing, it seemed to be trying to make the Canadian team play the Italian system she was accustomed to dealing with, ignoring their physical strength in the process, while Pellerud's later teams were criticized for not maximizing the on-ball talents of players like Sinclair, Matheson and Melissa Tancredi. Herdman's installation of belief in these Canadian players has definitely been important, but he's also come up with creative ways to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses, and that's helped him quickly turn this team from turmoil to glory. Some were skeptical about hiring another foreigner after the Morace disaster, but so far, Herdman has certainly proven to be the right man for the job.

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