September 01, 2011
At first glance, some will obviously be concerned with the Canadian Soccer Association's decision to hire John Herdman as the new head coach of the women's national team. Herdman isn't a Canadian, but rather an Englishman who's spent much of the last decade in various capacities with the New Zealand women's program, including serving as head coach of the senior team since 2007. That may raise questions about his long-term loyalty to the program, his ability to fit in and whether there were Canadians who should have been tabbed instead.
Those questions are fair. A qualified Canadian coach would be the ideal solution, and there are plenty of potential problems with bringing in a foreign coach. Consider how poorly things went in this year's Women's World Cup under the team's last foreign coach, Italy's Carolina Morace. However, Herdman isn't Morace, and there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about his hire—despite his lack of a Canadian passport.
For one thing, Herdman has a solid amount of experience at the top levels of women's soccer. He's most known for his time with the New Zealand women's senior squad, which he's taken to the 2007 and 2011 Women's World Cups. They exited in the first round each time and recorded just one draw and five losses over the two tournaments (with the draw coming this year against Mexico, the match in which he's seen on the touchline at right above). Making the tournament alone is a considerable achievement for New Zealand, though; they made the inaugural one in 1991, but lost all three games there (and only scored one goal while allowing 11), and didn't make it back to the big stage until Herdman took over in 2007.
Moreover, the Football Ferns demonstrated continued improvement under Herdman; they went from losing all three Women's World Cup games in 2007 and allowing nine goals while not scoring any to recording a draw against Mexico in 2011 and limiting the damage to 2-1 losses against powerhouse England and eventual champion Japan. On the whole, they scored four goals and allowed six, a differential of just negative two, which is quite respectable in a powerful group like that. Consider that in FIFA's March rankings, the last ones released before the Women's World Cup this year, Japan was fourth, England was 10th, Mexico was 22nd and New Zealand was 24th. By contrast, Canada was sixth, and yet exited at the same stage of the competition. Herdman will have more resources, more talented players and a better player-development infrastructure to work with with the Canadian team, so that certainly gives him a solid opportunity to produce better results.
Another worthwhile point is that just because one international coach fails doesn't mean they all will. Yes, Canada had severe problems under Morace, and their exit this year certainly was disappointing. Those issues weren't all Morace's fault, and they haven't mysteriously vanished since she was fired, but her confrontational style, battles with the CSA and unusual decisions (such as employing all Italian assistants, making the team train in Italy) clearly didn't produce the expected results. However, Herdman's already said he's going to base the team in Canada and try to adapt to the existing culture here. That's certainly a positive step.
Herdman also has experience at a wide variety of levels, and that could be crucial in fixing Canada's issues, especially on the development side. Canada's development program is probably better than say, New Zealand's, but it's not up there with the top teams in the world (despite the tremendous amounts of talented Canadian players out there and the sheer numbers of women playing the game here). Herdman has worked as New Zealand's director of soccer development and coached the U-20 women's team, who he took to the 2006 U-20 Women's World Cup.
That experience could be extremely valuable. As the coach of the senior team, Herdman will have to work closely with the various junior team officials (the U-20 team doesn't seem to have a coach at the moment, while the U-17 team is led by Bryan Rosenfeld) and make sure those programs are constructed to develop players and prepare them for the main national team. Herdman knows how those levels work, and should be able to effectively incorporate them into the overall picture.
In an ideal world, yes, it would probably be better to have a Canadian coaching the team. That's not merely from a nationalistic standpoint, but also one considering loyalty and long-term future plans; Herdman's committed to this program for now, but will he stay if, say, England comes calling, or the U.S.? However, foreign coaches of national teams have long been prominent in both men's and women's soccer, and they're not just for minnows; the American men's team just hired German Jürgen Klinsmann to lead their program.
Moreover, there just aren't any Canadians out there at the moment with Herdman's length and breadth of top-level experience coaching the women's game. In the long run, perhaps there will be some, and plenty of progress can be made towards that front; Herdman's assistants haven't been named yet, but hopefully he'll give Canadians some key roles where they can develop their coaching skills. For now, though, the CSA went out and got a very qualified candidate instead of opting for a cheaper in-house option. He'll be judged by his results, but from here, the hire looks promising—even if Herdman's passport doesn't have the Canadian coat of arms.