EXCEL program paying off for Canadian soccer

Janine Beckie, left, in action for Canada at the 2015 Pan Am Games. (Peter Power/CP)

The future is now for the Canadian women’s national team.

After a number of years of predominantly relying on experienced veterans, coach John Herdman has infused youth into his roster for this month’s CONCACAF qualifying tournament for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Kadeisha Buchanan, Ashley Lawrence, and Jessie Fleming—all under the age of 21—are familiar faces as members of last summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup team. Now they’re joined by youngsters Shelina Zadorsky, Rebecca Quinn, Deanne Rose, Janine Beckie, Nichelle Prince and Gabrielle Carle. Those six players make up a group of graduates of the EXCEL program.

The EXCEL program came to fruition shortly after Herdman was hired by the Canadian Soccer Association in 2011. The primary goal of EXCEL is to strengthen the ways the CSA identifies and develops players from across the country. It provides structure from the minute players enter the national program, whether it’s at an identification camp as a 15-year-old, or down the road as part of the under-20 team.

Having the same fundamentals being taught at every age group is a priority and shows the framework established by the EXCEL staff is paying dividends.

“It was about aligning a system and now we’re seeing the rewards of that,” Herdman explained on a recent conference call with the media. “The implementation of our EXCEL system and the alignment across our country now with six regional EXCEL centres coming onboard in 2015 and the consistency in our tactical philosophy through those systems and an understanding, the requirements, the profiles and measures for achieving national standards, all of those things have come into play to enable us to have a more consistent and reliable pipeline.”

As a comparison, the under-20 group that trained before Herdman’s inaugural season with then-coach Carolina Morace in 2010 had only two players jump to the senior squad who found consistent minutes (Adriana Leon—38 appearances, and Chelsea Stewart—44 appearances). They proved to be the exception, as no one else would go on to earn half as many caps. The two closest were Shannon Woeller at 16 and Lexi Marton at nine.

The under-20 team two years later featured just a duo from the current senior group, Zadorsky and goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo. The lack of progression is now a faint memory as the 2014 under-20 side had seven players graduate to the senior team: Sura Yekka, Beckie, Buchanan, Lawrence, Fleming, Prince and Quinn.

EXCEL U-18/U-20 director and coach Daniel Worthington said he’s pleased to see so many players establishing themselves.

“We’ve got young players coming through the system that shows that the system is working,” Worthington told Sportsnet. “We’re on the path that shows we’re increasing that positional threshold. That Olympic qualification roster has a blend of new faces, those players that are establishing themselves. It’s an exciting time for us as a program.”

He also added the program is developing players from every position, which is crucial to the team’s success.

“We’re training players in positions to what we call the Gold Medal Standard,” he said. “Part of the development is tournament expertise, which is if you look at Gabi [Carle] and Deanne [Rose], they were tracked and they didn’t go to the Under-20 CONCACAF tournament in December.

“They, instead, saw themselves against some of the best in the world in Brazil at the four nation tournament [with the senior team]. It was a true measuring stick. We’re not just developing positional experts; we’re finding the right level of competition.”

Herdman echoed that sentiment and said the inclusion of youth is already paying off.

“They’ve got that energy and I think that inspires the veterans,” he stated. “They bring a sort of ‘no fear’ to the game. They’ve grown up in a system where they bring a new level of technical quality because of their exposure to the youth system here in Canada. They bring a new level of understanding to the game.”

Canada opens up the CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying tournament in Texas on Feb. 11 versus Guyana.