Rustad: Canada needs new blood, time to improve

You may not yet have heard of Janine Beckie, but that may soon change as the young Canadian women's player wowed national team coach John Herdman at the Pan Am Games.

This has been a rough summer for Canadian soccer.

Canada reached the quarterfinals of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, but even though the team made the knockout round for the first time since 2003 there was a sense that the Reds underwhelmed on home soil.

The senior men’s side bowed out of the CONCACAF Gold Cup after three games (two draws and a loss) without scoring a single goal for the second consecutive tournament. Goal scoring was also a problem for the men at the Pan Am Games—they scored just once and failed to get out of their group.

The women’s team advanced to the semifinals of the Pan Ams, but that owed more to the lacklustre play of group opponents Ecuador and Costa Rica. This side was made up of youngsters who were essentially trying out for senior team coach John Herdman. Did they do enough to provide some hope for the future?

Clare Rustad knows Canadian soccer, having earned 45 caps for the senior team from 2000 to 2008. Rustad represented her country at a number of international tournaments including the 1999 Pan Am Games and the Beijing Olympics, before retiring in 2008 to pursue a medical career.

Rustad is also one of Canadian soccer’s most thoughtful and insightful television commentators—she served as an analyst for TSN during its coverage of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, and on Sportsnet’s broadcasts of the Pan Am Games.

Rustad recently spoke to, offering her thoughts on Canada’s showing at the Pan Am Games, and the future of the senior women’s team.

What did you make of Canada’s overall performance at the Pan Am Games?
Technically, there were some promising players on this team who showed at times that they were capable of the vision and technique that’s necessary to play at the senior level. What let (Canada) down was the overall performance where the service into the box just wasn’t good enough, and at times when the service was there then the movement and anticipation inside the box wasn’t good enough. It’s a similar issue with the men’s and women’s senior teams where that technical level has not improved—and in the women’s game we’ve been surpassed by several other countries as their player development systems improve far greater than ours..

This was an under-23 team that Canada fielded so a lot of people were saying they’re young and inexperienced, but the fact is 23 is not that young. If we want to improve the technical abilities of (Canadian national teams) we have to look back at eight-, nine- and ten-year olds in this country, and develop those players properly, so that they learn the proper technique when they’re the most able to learn it.

You think about trying to learn a language in your 20s relative to when you’re a young kid, it’s completely different. We can look at our national teams and say “create chances” and “score goals” but it’s like telling someone who hasn’t learned how to speak French properly to suddenly converse in French.

Did coach Daniel Worthington get enough out of his team?
It was made very clear from the beginning of the tournament that this was more about looking at individual player performances as opposed to shooting for a medal. Worthington and John Herdman said beforehand that the goal was to give every player as much playing time as they could in order to evaluate them in an international setting. That may have dictated certain roster decisions that were made from game to game, but again, this was about taking the longer view in terms of giving players experience, rather than results.

Still, should we not have expected a little more from this Canadian team considering they were playing on home soil?
Well, look, let’s be honest—they got to the semifinals of an eight-team tournament because Costa Rica lost to Ecuador in the group stage and because they didn’t lose 5-0 to Brazil. It wasn’t necessarily because of their performances that they reached the semis.

Was it wrong to expect more from Canada? I don’t know. Maybe. Technically, there were players there who showed they have a lot of promise, but the team was together five days before the tournament started, and some of the players had never met some of their teammate before. The team was brought together quite quickly, so it’s hard to expect them to instantly gel.

Now, do I expect more in terms of the quality of the service on the pitch? Yes. The majority of these players have competed at under-17 and under-20 level, and some of them have seen senior team action, so I expected far more in terms of the service. I also expected far more in terms of their ability to anticipate the play, and connect with the ball in and around the 18-yard box.

Which players stood out the most for Canada in your opinion?
I really liked Rebecca Quinn and Shelina Zadorsky. Quinn has a huge amount of potential. Both of them were solid at the tournament and exuded a lot of confidence. Quinn carried the ball too much at times, but that’s a decision making mistake, and something that can be corrected. But I thought both her and Zadorsky in terms of their technical skills and ability to play in central defence were very promising. Canada has Kadeisha Buchanan at that position, but beyond that that’s a bit of problem for the senior team.

Janine Beckie and Emma Fletcher showed they can play as flank players, which is another deficiency for the senior team. Both of them demonstrated not only the ability but the willingness to take opposing players on at pace, and to involve themselves in the attack as much as possible. Gabrielle Carle up front impressed me with her technique, too.

It’s unfortunate that they weren’t able to come together and provide the team performance that was required, but I think there is some talent there to build upon.

Following up on that point, which players on this Pan Am side do you see graduating to the full senior team?
Well, I think Quinn could do that. Either Fletcher or Beckie would be very useful on the flanks. Obviously, Jessie Fleming will probably become more of a starter with the senior team, and I think that’s reasonable.

For me, Canada’s fullbacks were exposed a bit at the World Cup, and that’s a problem area for the team. Kinley McNicoll had a good Pan Am tournament, and Zadorsky is another fullback option moving forward, I think.

Does the senior team need an injection of new blood from younger players who competed at the Pan Ams?
Yeah, I think that’s a fair comment. They’re definitely needs to be an influx of new players, and obviously that depends on the talent pool available. But there are players here on this Pan Am team who could make that jump.

One thing I want to stress, though, is things aren’t going to change overnight. We’re not going to completely change the Canadian women’s team by adding a few players from the Pan Am side, and suddenly make them competitive with the top countries in the world. You can’t do that in a year; it’s simply not realistic. This is going to take systemic change to our player development system. We need to focus on how we train and how we develop kids and teach them how to play—and that’s a pretty long-term commitment. We’re talking about a 10-15 year plan. It’s very difficult to make huge changes in just a year, and expect results.

Yes, there are players on this Pan Am team who can play for the senior team, but whether or not that makes a huge difference in terms of results and competitiveness, that’s a pretty big stretch. Patience is required for genuine progress to be made.

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