Canada faces challenges ahead of World Cup

Canada, ranked seventh in the world, had a chance to grab the lead in the 48th minute, but Sophie Schmidt sliced a cross from Brittany Baxter over the Mexican goal. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

VANCOUVER – Managing a team that won’t play competitive matches until the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup apparently isn’t all that easy. This is what Canadian coach John Herdman is finding out following a dull and scoreless draw versus Mexico at BC Place on Sunday.

Hosting the World Cup will be a massive event for Canada, and a huge positive for growing the game. But from a competitive standpoint, it seems getting players motivated for friendlies in the lead up to that tournament could prove a challenge given that Canada qualifies automatically as the host country.

Still, while the team doesn’t have much to gain from these exhibition matches, individuals trying to break into the side do have a lot to play for, and when asked about the play of one such relative newcomer, left fullback Kylla Sjoman, Herdman took the opportunity to lay down the law for what he finds an acceptable performance.

“I’m not going to lie about players,” Herdman said. “They’ve been given chances. I’ve brought in 13 new faces and players have to rip the shirt off people to get in this squad. It’s a bronze medal winning team. We know that that left back position is an area we’re trying to strengthen, and players, when they get that chance, have to take it.

“So, to go in and just play okay…at this stage, for me, it’s not enough, and it’s not enough for any player that comes on and just plays okay for Canada.”

Against Mexico, Herdman’s team displayed little of the energy it showed in the London 2012 Olympic Games, when they claimed the bronze medal and put on a heroic battle against the United States in an ultimately unsuccessful semifinal. Canada also lacked imagination, and star forward Christine Sinclair looked isolated for large stretches, getting little in the way of quality service.

Still, Herdman appears to want to keep Sinclair up top, rather than drop her back into midfield as he has done in the past, including last month’s Edmonton friendly against South Korea.

“We changed our system today from what was did [against] South Korea,” Herdman said. “We’ve been learning that model…if you’re dropping her into midfield you’re changing everything you’ve worked on for two or three days. When we get to the World Cup, we expect that level of tactical flexibility where it’s not working, we change it.

“But at this stage, we’re sticking quite steadfast with the work we’ve done behind the scenes.”

It’s clear that Herdman wants improvement from his side, but there were positives to take away from this game. Sura Yekka, the 16 year old right fullback, was involved and pushed forward well once again. She brings a natural athleticism and likes to join in the attack, but will need to work on her final ball—she often did the difficult part in beating her marker and making space, only to flub her cross or pass. But she’s still a teenager, and looks to be a real asset for this side for years to come.

“I’m very proud of Sura,” goalkeeper Erin McLeod told reporters following the match. “I remember in Edmonton [against South Korea], I asked her if she enjoyed the game, and she said, ‘no, I didn’t.’ And I said, ‘why?’ And she was like,’I was just too nervous.’

“Today I think she got the nerves out of the way, and I think she had a great performance. She’s 16 years old, so I’m very excited. I think the whole team is excited to see the future that this woman has.”

Next up for Canada is a tournament in Brazil, where the team will play that country, in addition to Scotland and Chile from Dec. 11 to 22. Organizers will be providing the official announcement of that competition on Thursday.

Herdman also revealed that Dec. 22 is the date he must decide which 16 women are chosen as the players the Canadian Soccer Association will pay to compete in the newly created National Women’s Soccer League.

“These games have been important games for players,” Herdman said. “They’re carrying a bit of pressure coming into this. There are some players that know they’re scrapping for contracts as well, so every minute on the pitch counts to them.”

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