Going into this summer’s Pan American Games, the focus of the women’s team was development and experience. The coaching staff’s top priority was to get a clearer picture of the talent coming through the Canadian pipeline, while giving them valuable playing time on the international stage.
Daniel Worthington, coach of the Pan Am squad and director of the women’s EXCEL U-18/U-20 developmental program, says the tournament was a stepping stone that provided valuable lessons to the young group.
Worthington sat down with Sportsnet to discuss the team’s showing at the competition, what they need to work on going forward and what’s in store for the future.
With the Pan American Games now in the books, how do you look back on the tournament? Did the team’s performance reach your expectations?
We set some goals and the first was to secure five international senior “A” games for this young group of women, this young group of EXCEL players. We did that.
The next positive is we wanted to instill a game model, a DNA, that the women’s national team has established and strived toward improving that threshold position. I think against all of the teams we employed three different ways to defend and we had four attacking organization strategies. In that sense, we actually improved the learning of these young players along the way, not only in the game model, but actual application into senior games.
I think coupled with that is for two back-to-back games, Colombia and Mexico, you saw us out shoot and out cross the opponent. It’s something for the girls to be proud of and is the actual set of the marker and the measure toward playing at that level.
The senior team had trouble scoring at the recent FIFA Women’s World Cup and the squad at the Pan Ams also struggled putting the ball in the back of the net. As a coaching staff, how do you approach the lack of finish?
We talk to the players about structure and process. We did challenge them to say “Look, we’ve had 300 minutes without a goal.” I was glad we got that penalty in the last minute against Mexico, but it’s about a process. It’s about playing the right way. The key message is these are young footballers, learning to be international players. With that, there’s going to be lessons learned. The quality about scoring goals is about producing crosses, getting shots and we just needed an extra push on the clinical finishing. That was the story of the tournament.
Before Mexico we said, “We cannot waste these chances that we have,” but it all comes back to process. Are we playing the right way? Are we living our strategy? Are we producing final acts? It’s just about that little extra bit of quality inside the box. If you look at the senior team, you’ve had (Christine) Sinclair, who has been a prolific goal scorer and we’re still looking for that Sinclair. We have the Kadeisha Buchanans of the world at centre-back. You’ve got Ashley Lawrence doing well in midfield for us as a young player and got onto the world stage in the World Cup and produced a similar performance at the Pan Ams.
We’ll now go away and look at our statistical measures — our objective data we recorded — and we’ll see a lot of positives there. I think internally, too, we had players with GPS data with high intensity runs start to produce numbers that are in line with the senior team and try and push that threshold beyond the current positional strength of the women’s national team. Internally, we’ve identified players who can push toward (the 2016 Rio Olympics) and use those measures for players who can push maybe not toward Rio, but toward (the 2019 World Cup in France).
Coming in, it was a future focus and I think with eight new international caps, hopefully you’ll see in the coming months, after we’ve done an assessment of the senior team, you might see an extra couple of players come through the pipeline and start the chance of an opportunity within the women’s national team.
How do you make sure this young group doesn’t get frustrated or down on themselves when they aren’t scoring?
The first thing you look for when you’re identifying players is enthusiasm and passion. Sarah Kinzner is a great example. She’s always smiling. Every time she comes into the environment, she’s buzzing and so happy to be there. The big piece is that a lot of these players showed they can play at this level and they can track toward the women’s national team.
Some didn’t deal with the pressure and some didn’t perform, but that’s football. I think it’s about how they handle pressure. Internally, we talk about the pressure, the scrutiny and there’s pressure from media, from fans.
At the end of the day, it’s knowing they rise to the challenge. For example, we showed Sarah’s chance on goal (versus Colombia) back to the group four or five times in a meeting and said, “We need more at this level.” But we didn’t do that to instill fear, because we’ve got the processes down, we’re arriving in the right spaces at the right time and we just need more quality. For someone like Sarah, I know that in the training environment, she’s scoring that nine times out of 10. It’s about the learning process and how they can handle that pressure at that level. She’s there at the right time, the right place and it’s coming back down to structure and process. Goals will come; they’ll come if we get structure and process right. Sarah came away with lessons there, Janine Beckie came away with lessons and we all came away with lessons.
We’re still looking for that goal scorer for Canada. Hopefully she’s out there. You look at Sarah Stratigakis, she’s got a U-17 CONCACAF qualification, U-17 Women’s World Cup. Then you look at Gabrielle Carle and Marie Levasseur, Kinzner, Victoria Pickett, a few of the players in that group still have a U-20 qualification coming up in Honduras and then they’ll have the U-20 Women’s World Cup next year. What we can expect is that if we can take the lessons that those players have learned at this tournament, and they can come into their national EXCEL environment U-17 and U-20, we can use that as a springboard to infuse that into other players. We can raise the standard of our national EXCEL program and I’m expecting those players to come in with higher standards, to start to lead that group and say, “Look, this is what we were able to do, let’s bring you with us.” I’m really looking for them to step up in our national U-17 and U-20 programs.
You mentioned Janine Beckie earlier and watching her during this tournament, she really commanded the ball. She wants it on her foot all the time. What can you tell us about her progress?
Janine Beckie is a player who excelled in the 2014 U-20 Women’s World Cup for us. We came out of that and said, “Can she push toward the women’s national team?” We got her on a program with players like Kadeisha Buchanan, Ashley Lawrence and Rebecca Quinn. Janine was part of a group on the athlete life program that got to take a semester off school from January until the beginning of the World Cup and she was on track to potentially play in that senior World Cup just recently.
Unfortunately for Janine, she went into that environment and put a lot of pressure on herself. She didn’t perform quite well enough to make a squad of 23. She took that hard. The reality was, she put all of her effort and determination into getting to a World Cup and she didn’t get there. What Janine had to do is go away and do a bit of soul searching to see if she can push toward this team. She did that. She went away knowing that she had the Pan Am Games — five international games — and it was an arena for her to standout.
In the first game, she showed things that she’s not shown at the senior level, whether that was a confidence thing, whether it was a performance thing. She was our best player against Mexico. We made a few changes to give her a free role in that second half, where she came deep and she got on that ball and really started to take command, have some leadership within the team. I think for Janine, she wasn’t ready for the World Cup, but I think once she’s gone away, she’s one of the players who took advantage of the Pan Am Games and minutes on the park. She played nearly every minute and she took advantage of that. Very pleased with Janine’s performance.
Focusing on leadership, you had Stephanie Labbe as your captain. What did she provide to the group as the eldest player?
It’s not just Steph, but it was important for the players who are part of the senior environment, Kadeisha, Ashley,(Rebecca) Quinn, and Jessie (Fleming) and somewhat Janine, to take a leadership role with this group. Steph’s not played that many minutes for the international senior “A” team and it was important that we got her in this environment to give her five international games. That’s not just only to get her game minutes, but to build her confidence and to lead her squad.
As the oldest player on the team, it was important that she was our link. When you only have four days to prepare a group, you have to one, connect them and two, get trust instilled inside them with some love and I think the third thing is the team needs to perform. She was great. She was great inside, in the meetings, she took a leadership role in leading what we call ‘finishing meetings,’ leading strategy meetings internally for the team. Even when she was suspended, she made sure the dressing room was taken care of like a captain would. She had notes, comments, a PowerPoint presentation with inspiring pictures for the young players in action. For the last game, she brought some fan-based comments inside for the Mexico game with well wishes and positive comments. It was a valuable experience for her.
Rebecca Quinn was our vice-captain and she played every minute of the tournament. We had rotational leadership inside and I was impressed with the way Steph went about integrating herself into it because it could’ve been easy as our more experienced player to come in, take what she needed to take out of it, but what she did was she gave to others. Very pleased with the way she led internally, but not just on the field, off the field too.
What’s the next step for you and this group?
The senior team is obviously in the fourth year of its quadrennial cycle toward Rio, where it’s all about performance. We got through learn, improve and perfect and now we’re in that performance stage. There’s going to be clarity on the running to Rio and the Olympics. For that, there will be some players doing what we call the EXCEL program, which is my program, so I’ll be connected with the senior program helping the bloomers from the Pan Ams. I’ll be involved with those players that need an individual, personalized performance program. That’ll be one of my projects: make sure I give the players the best opportunity to integrate into the women’s national team program over a course of arenas. So if they are in the U-17s, U-20s, U-23s or NCAA and going into the women’s national team, making sure they have a full program that’s going to benefit them and take care of their technical development.
The second project is really going to be making sure we have the right players in place for the U-20 CONCACAF qualifications in Honduras in December. In a little while, there’ll be some planning around that event, but there’ll also be planning in the bigger picture in our national curriculum. It’ll be getting down to nailing down the curriculum over a six-year cycle with Bev Priestman (Women’s EXCEL Program U-14/U-17 Director). Bev and I’ll look at the curriculum and make sure it’s in place for the future, the future generations of the player. Then I’ll just be monitoring, tracking any player that’s eligible in the U-20 environment for CONCACAF. Hopefully we’ll have the right players in there for a camp in November, leading into CONCACAF for a positive qualification.
There’s never a down time with us. It’s about really making sure that between now and November is that we’re diligent in our planning and preparation for what we call goal one, which is performance. Goal two is “More Sinclairs more often.”
Right now, we’ve come out of a World Cup that’s inspired a nation and that, I believe, has positive momentum with young players wanting to play the game and get involved, coaches wanting to coach the game and making sure we’re leaving a legacy behind.