Canada prepared for all World Cup scenarios

Sportsnet's Gene Principe reports from Edmonton where Canada prepares to face New Zealand in the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

EDMONTON—We’ve heard the narrative since the balls were selected and Women’s World Cup teams were placed in their groups that the winner of Group A will have a gold-lined soft-touch road to the semifinals. If Canada wins its group, none of the so-called “first-tier” powers will block the route to the semis.

With 1-0 wins in their opening games, Canada and the Netherlands currently share top spot in Group A, and hours before Canada faces New Zealand on Thursday at Commonwealth Stadium, the Dutch will face the Chinese.

Why is that significant? When Canada kicks off against the Kiwis, coach John Herdman and his players will know exactly what they will need to do in order to be in sole possession of first place.

But, wait, maybe first place isn’t that important to the Canadians. Maybe all of that talk about the soft-touch draw for the Group A winner has been overblown. Because, after Canada wrapped up its training session on Tuesday evening, Herdman suggested it might be more important to manage and rotate the squad rather than go for first place. Canada can’t mathematically win the group Thursday, but it could clinch its spot in the Round of 16 with a result against New Zealand. And, if it happens, Herdman said he might just consider resting players for the third and final group-stage game, June 15 in Montreal.

“We’d love to have the six points in the bag and be in a position where we can start looking at the squad, the rotation—as well as the goal, which is to win the group. That’s our key goal here, we want to try and nullify that travel time,” Herdman said.

That quote is filled with contradictions. Herdman said he wants the six points and the opportunity to win the group. (But, six points won’t be enough to clinch the group.) He talked about winning the group so Canada has the softer-touch elimination-round schedule, with less travel. (But he added the bit about managing his players—and maybe rotating the squad.)

Confused? Well, mixed messages are just what coaches do at World Cups. They like to keep everyone guessing. They like to try and take the pressure off their players. But what Herdman did is break the narrative that Canada MUST take first place or else locusts will fall from the skies.

There’s more. He added that Canada isn’t afraid of the schedule that awaits if it finishes second or qualifies as a third-place side.

“We’re not scared about going into the other places,” Herdman stated, “because how cool would it be to go play in Ottawa, the capital city?”

Canada could go to Ottawa in the Round of 16 if it qualifies as a third-place Group A finisher. But it would likely have to face one of the big guns, likely Germany. If it finishes second, it would come back to Edmonton for the Round of 16, but would have to head out east in later rounds. Only by finishing first does Canada play its knockout games in Western Canada and minimizes its jet lag.

Herdman added that even having four points after two games—if Canada draws New Zealand—may be enough to clinch a spot in the next round. Again, emphasis on “next round” and not “first place.”

There’s a balance here. Does Herdman and his team go all out for three games in an effort to win the group, yet risk suspensions and injuries for an elimination game—albeit an elimination game against a lesser opponent? Or does Herdman say qualification is good enough, and it’s time to protect players with knocks and those on yellow cards?

Herdman said that even if Canada finishes first, chances are that the schedule won’t be as soft-touch as predicted. He said it always happens that some of the powers will have a slip in the group stage—and they could be on Canada’s path, regardless. “It never goes the way you think,” he said.

First, though, they’ll need some sort of result against Herdman’s old team. Before switching programs, Herdman was grooming many of New Zealand’s young female players so they would peak in 2015.

New Zealand didn’t score in its Women’s World Cup opener. It didn’t score in its last three pre-WWC friendlies. The team’s last tally in an international came back on Feb. 12, a 3-2 loss to Australia; Sarah Gregorius scored both goals. But, in 67 minutes against the Dutch, Gregorius didn’t manage a shot towards goal.

Despite the lack of goals, New Zealand will provide more entertainment than the defence-first Chinese.

“Now we’re onto the New Zealand blueprint,” Herdman said. “They play very different than the Chinese. It’s not your typical zonal block, it’s two banks of three, a very high press, they have an aggressive ‘sniper’ on the opposite side, a forward who will hunt our centre backs down so they won’t have the same time the Chinese gave them to knock it across the back.

“You’ll see a different style from Canada in this game, and we’ll balance a different rhythm against New Zealand than we did against China.”

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The other wild card could be the weather. Despite temperatures in the low 20s, the wind howled at Clarke Field—next door to Commonwealth Stadium—on Tuesday night. Rain is expected to move in Wednesday and linger all day Thursday, making for a wet pitch. In fact, before training began, Herdman asked me for some local knowledge: What’s the wind like? Does it settle down? In Commonwealth, will it swirl, or will it be steady for 90 minutes?

Through years of broadcasting FC Edmonton matches out of Clarke Stadium, I told him to expect gusts and changes in wind direction. Basically, the way the wind will blow is unpredictable. It’s key, because Herdman hinted that, with New Zealand’s high press, Canada will have to play long balls into space in the back. And wind and rain that speed up play can play havoc with that plan.

Fullback Allysha Chapman said rain would be an advantage for Canada.

“The ball will move quicker on the turf when it’s wet out, and I think that we’re the more technical team over New Zealand, so I don’t think it would hurt,” Chapman offered.

Midfielder Diana Matheson—out since October with a knee injury—and fullback Rhian Wilkinson (hamstring) were both on the field working out with Gabriel Farfan before the rest of the team trained on Friday. Herdman said both Matheson and Wilkinson will be on the team sheet. Farfan, an American player who spent time with the Philadelphia Union and Chivas USA and is now with Chiapas of the Mexican League, was on the field helping the Canadian team with their training. He is Kaylyn Kyle’s partner.

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