With no World Cup this summer, where does Canada’s U-20 team go from here?

A busy 2018 has already begun for the Canadian women’s soccer program.

In late January, Canada failed to qualify for this summer’s FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup after losing a knockout game to Haiti at the CONCACAF Women’s U-20 Championship in Trinidad and Tobago.

Coach Bev Priestman says that disappointment is now providing a crucial learning opportunity for her young group and the entire Canadian developmental pathway. Priestman oversees much of the country’s program, not only as the EXCEL director but also as coach of the U-17 and U-20 teams, while also working as an assistant with the women’s senior team beside new coach Kenneth Heiner-Møller.

Her upcoming schedule is a busy one: the senior side is taking part in the Algarve Cup in Portugal starting Feb. 28, and the CONCACAF U-17 Women’s Championship is slated for April in Nicaragua.

Priestman chatted with Sportsnet about what lessons were learned from the recent U-20 tournament and what’s on the horizon for the EXCEL program.

What are your takeaways from the CONCACAF Women’s U-20 Championship?
If I talk personally and emotionally, I’m obviously gutted for the girls because they didn’t qualify. I’ve been with a lot of those players now over a five-year period, taking them early, some in 2014. On a personal level, they don’t get to go to a World Cup, but take that emotion out of it, I think, [there are] some positives and some things to learn from. Overall, and you’ll see that as spectators, the top four teams, there was very limited goals scored and there was just one game in the knockout round that was done in 90 minutes of play.

I think it did reflect how tight it is actually becoming at the CONCACAF level, which can only help us in the long-term. The short-term is that particular group doesn’t get to go to a World Cup. I think we were one of the youngest teams there in terms of median age. I think that’s a reflection of what we are about, which is [developing young players for] the women’s national team.

I think also Deanne [Rose] and Jessie [Fleming] weren’t there … we chose to take some younger players that we feel long-term have what it takes to play for the women’s national team.

It was a young team and now those seven players will get to go play for the U-17s in the [upcoming CONCACAF U-17 tournament]. This experience is only going to help them in their journey and they’ll bring that hunger to want to qualify in that particular group and they’ll never take qualifying for granted in the future, that’s for sure.

On the positive side, Canada won its group, and Jordyn Huitema led the tournament in scoring.
We had a great group stage. Jordyn Huitema might be a U-20 player on paper, but she’s a U-17 player, she goes and gets the Golden Boot. That’s only going to bode well for her and her women’s national team career. She got to experience some adversity in the sense that when you’re a leading goal scorer, you get marked; youth teams are targeting her when she’s playing against them and maybe when she’s playing on the senior level now at the age of 17, she won’t experience that. That’s a massive positive to take forward for some of the individuals in that particular group.

As you mentioned, the U-20 roster was young (average age 18.2). After the defeat to Haiti, what advice did you give them to move forward?
There were a couple of messages. One of the messages was to use this one result, if you look at it objectively, use this hurt you’re feeling right now, which is what they were on the day, to drive you to be better every day in your own environment. Because 11 of those girls get to go again, and for those that don’t get to go again, as Canada Soccer, our job is to review this tournament, review performances, because at the end, for us is who do we feel can go on now or in the next four years and represent Canada at the senior level.

There were individual learnings and developments to drive that group of players forward and for the U-17s, it was about bringing their massive experiences to a very young group and it was their first CONCACAF tournament. There are some things you learn in tournaments around heat, recovery, all the styles of play. You bring those experiences to this group that you’ll be joining in two months.

Did the result in Trinidad given you any pause in thought about the value of the residency program? Should any adjustments be made to the pathway?
Structurally, I think the super-centre and the players that were there, it’s a very young concept. For us to reflect on it structurally, we look maybe four years in advance to look at it that way. Of course, I think when you finish a tournament your biggest job as a system is to reflect and review the curriculum content, etcetera. I think that’s part of the job. We have a great opportunity in the sense of two big tournaments in the first quarter of this year and as we do after every tournament, whether we win, whether we qualify, we implement the daily curriculum. That’s our ‘X-factor’ of having such an aligned program. That, for sure, will see those U-17 players implemented as of now in their current centres are preparing themselves to play in CONCACAF again.

So, system and structure, for sure we know, because we see a lot of players that were at that tournament early were because they are being pushed being with better players in a concentrated environment. That’s the reason they were even at the tournament. The structure, the learnings, whether we win, we lose, we feed that into our system.

How are preparations going for the upcoming U-17 tournament?
After the Algarve Cup with the senior team, we have a camp and the preparation camp will see all of the players come together, the U-17s. Most of those players are operating across our three centres: Vancouver, Ontario and Quebec. Those girls will be ramping up to that tournament mindset. They’ll be working on the way we want to play. That’s part of the alignment. I’m excited because at the U-17 level there are always people who jump up in tournaments that really stand up in moments and that’s the exciting part with a fresh group of faces who are new to CONCACAF.

When you look at the players in the residency program, is there a positional area of depth that stands out?
I would say it’s actually quite balanced. You could argue a couple of years ago it was always those midfield technicians, even if you just look at that U-20 group, the young players that have relocated. I would say that across the board we have profiles of what we are looking for and I would say we’re starting to tick across the pitch and who emerges at the right time when they are most ready.

And how are things for you? With John Herdman moving over to the men’s program, are you transitioning well with any new responsibilities?
You can look at change as a really exciting thing. Although it’s change, there’s massive consistency and I think for anyone in the system when John was with the women’s game, the good thing for everyone was the consistency. I worked under John in Canada for five years, Kenneth [Heiner-Møller] for the last two. That’s part of the appointment process, to make sure the consistency is there and I think with my role, what I’m doing more so is that I’m always doing the system. I’m continuing with that. I’ve got a greater connection and touching point in all of the senior team. I’m busy, but I’m excited to keep things going in a positive direction with John just moving onto the other side of the program.