Herdman: ‘We want to create more Sinclairs’

John Herdman guided the Canadian women's team to a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics. (CP)

If you think John Herdman is going to sit back, relax with his feet up, and watch the upcoming FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup from the comfort of his living room, think again.

The 16-nation competition runs from Aug. 5-24 with games in Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton and Moncton, and will feature a promising Canadian side. Among Canada’s top prospects are Sura Yekka, Kadeisha Buchanan, Rebecca Quinn and Jessie Fleming, who have all played for the senior team and could be named to the squad for next summer’s FIFA World Cup to be held in Canada.

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Naturally, as coach of the Canadian senior team, Herdman is particularly interested in how these players perform in this tournament. But he also wears the hat of Canada Soccer Women’s EXCEL director—a program that “unites and strengthens the ways (Canadian soccer) identifies and develops the most promising young female athletes and helps drive women’s soccer forward.”

As EXCEL director, Herdman oversees Canada’s U-14, U-17, U-18 and U-20 programs, making sure they are all aligned and working in unison towards the same goal: developing more players the calibre of Christine Sinclair, and more often.

Herdman took time out of his busy schedule to talk to Sportsnet about the EXCEL program, the U-20 World Cup, and the importance of the tournament for the senior team ahead of next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Sportsnet: The average person might not see or understand how the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup is actually vital to your preparations for next year’s World Cup, and the future of the women’s team beyond that. Why is it so important?

John Herdman: It’s a great opportunity for these younger players to experience a home World Cup. Over the last year and a half, you’ve seen how we’ve integrated quite a lot of these under-20 players into the senior team and given them a lot of game time. That signals they could be a big part of our attempt at the World Cup in 2015. So to play at a FIFA event here in Canada, you can’t get a better dress rehearsal for the younger players. That experience, more than anything, is what they lack. This is perfect for us.

SN: What’s your evaluation of Andrew Olivieri since he took over as coach of the Canadian U-20 team in 2012?

Herdman: In terms of the under-20s, Andrew has done a very good job of aligning the approach and the system of producing women’s national team players. He’s done a fantastic job over the last two years of putting that mantra as the priority and bringing into the youth system the same philosophies, paying styles, and playing models that we operate with at the senior team level.

SN: Why is that so important?

Herdman: With the launch of the EXCEL program this year, we shifted our system to make it a top-to-bottom system—full alignment, from the under-14 team through to seniors. We’ve identified a curriculum, we’ve put performance standards in place, and each coach in the system, they’re their own leader.

Andrew’s role is the U-20 EXCEL director, and Beverly (Priestman) is the U-17 EXCEL director. That means they have more than the responsibility of just coaching the team—they have to implement the strategies that lead to this consistent alignment. Part of Andrew’s measurement of his success is the style of the team and the amount of players who move on to the senior team—not many how World Cup games he wins.

The challenge that we have here in this cycle of our national EXCEL system is that you have a home U-20 World Cup, and that’s quite special. But while we’ve asked Andrew to make sure he’s progressing the team in line with the future of where we want to see the game growing in Canada, at the same time he has to pick a team that can be effective at the World Cup, and give this country something to celebrate.

SN: What’s the working relationship like between you and Andrew?

Herdman: It’s fantastic. He was my assistant with the senior team through the 2012 Olympics. I oversee the EXCEL program and I provide Andre and Bev support to make sure we’re on the same page, and that they’re given clear objectives by myself. It’s this sort of cohesion that’s ensured there is a shared vision for the future and for a future that, whether I’m here or Andrew is here or Bev is here—whoever is here—we’ve left a legacy of a developmental system that can put Canada on the podium.

Andrew and Bev do have some autonomy, but they do report to me. The goal is to create more Sinclairs more often.

SN: What’s your role during the upcoming FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup?

Herdman: That’s when I put my other hat on as the Women’s EXCEL Program director. I’ll be with the team, providing mentorship, guidance and support to the players, and observing and assessing the performance from Andrew. I’ll also be working with the players we’ve identified as having a god chance of getting called up for next summer’s World Cup.

What’s important in the EXCEL program is that we’ve started to look at FIFA youth tournaments in a different light. We’ve identified the youth tournaments as opportunities to learn how to win tournaments. Rather than looking at U-20 as a pinnacle for a player, it’s more about achieving certain standards within our system. The tournament becomes about learning certain processes for the players: how to deal with the experience of being in the FUFA bubble, the travel, the recovery time between games, the nutrition cycle, the psychological aspects.

It’s a great opportunity to win a World Cup, and if that happens it happens. But for me, it’s about players such as Sura Yekka and Kedeisha Buchanan and others who will be with the senior team next summer knowing what to expect. There’s a real learning opportunity here, and that’s where I see the biggest benefits for the players.

SN: Generally speaking, how competitive is the U-20 women’s game?

Herdman: It’s ultra-competitive. If you look at the last U-17 world cup, you had Venezuela go to the semifinals—that’s not something you’d see at senior level, but it gives you an idea of what is happening at youth level. You’ll see teams like South Korea win the event. You’ll see Spain win the European championship. You actually start to realize that a lot of countries have put a lot of developmental resources into their system, and their cycles of players in six to eight years would suggest the gap will get smaller and smaller at senior level.

SN: What do you make of Canada’s opening round group (Finland, Ghana and North Korea) at this U-20 World Cup?

Herdman: If you look at the group, on paper it looks good. Finland has a small population, and Ghana has a small amount of female players playing the game. So when you consider the national team setup of these countries, you say to yourself Canada has a great chance of being successful.

But the reality is their youth programs have been centralized and you never know what they’ve done in their system to get the team ready. On paper, it looks like quite an easy group, but the reality is that each of these countries might have a cycle of really good players and their youth system might be at its peak. You just don’t know.

FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup: The 2014 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup runs from August 5–24 in four cities across Canada. Watch all 32 games live on CBC and Sportsnet. || Match schedule || Standings || Tournament preview || Spotlight on Canada’s terrific trio || Sportsnet Q&A: John Herdman

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