Herdman’s heart still bleeds for Canadian women’s team

John Herdman (Nelson Antoine/AP)

TORONTO — You can take the man out of the women’s team, but, as it turns out, not the women’s team out of the man.

John Herdman’s career took an interesting turn in January when he made the switch from coach of the Canadian women’s side to the men’s program. It was a bold move for all parties involved, especially for Herdman, a 43-year-old native of England, who had previously spent his entire coaching career involved in the women’s game.

The Canadian women enjoyed their greatest success under Herdman, who led the squad to bronze medals at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. Canada also reached the quarterfinal of the 2015 FIFA World Cup staged on home soil — its best showing since finishing fourth at the 2003 tournament — and regularly occupied a top-five spot in the FIFA world rankings during the Englishman’s tenure.

It’s been 10 months since Herdman has moved on, but his fingerprints remain all over the women’s program. From his successor Kenneth Heiner-Møller (his former assistant), to several players he first called up for national team duty still being in the mix, to the team’s training methods, to player identification and development methods — Herdman’s legacy is profound and all-encompassing.

And while he has his sights firmly focused on the future with the men’s team, including next week’s Concacaf Nations League match against Dominica at BMO Field, Herdman is also keeping tabs on his former side as they compete in Texas at the qualifying tournament for next summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in France.

It was during a recent conversation with Sportsnet that Herdman meticulously laid out his long-term vision for the men’s program. But he became a little emotional when asked whether he missed being involved with the Canadian women’s team.

“For sure. You can’t go through some of the moments we went through — whether it was the first Olympic medal, the heartache of 2015 and then going [winning another medal] with some young kids — without forming close bonds,” Herdman admitted.

“I miss them, I miss the conversations I used to have with the players. It’s tough. It might have been easier to move to the other side of the world and cut ties altogether so you don’t see them and you’re not wondering about them.”

He later added: “It’s like a relationship when it ends and you both move on with your lives, but you still have feelings for the other person.”

Herdman isn’t completely divorced from the women’s team. He chats with Heiner-Møller all the time as part of a what he calls a “cross pollination” and “symbiotic” relationship between the two programs that allows them to share organizational knowledge and resources, such as a sports science department.

“Kenneth hasn’t changed the infrastructure and the internal processes. It wasn’t like a brand-new staff came in and had to adjust to doing thing completely differently. That’s part of the legacy we want to leave in this organization, that when people leave, the whole thing doesn’t just go with it and you have to start from scratch,” Herdman explained.

Aside from talking to Heiner-Møller, Herdman also hears from some of his former players.

“Now and again you get the odd phone call. It’s been nice. Sometimes a player reaches out and I get that fuzzy feeling of ‘Wow, I’m still a part of their lives.’ I wish them all the best,” Herdman offered.

Herdman said he’ll be watching Canada compete at the Concacaf Women’s Championship with great interest, especially as Christine Sinclair attempts to become the all-time leading scorer in international women’s soccer. The Canadian captain currently has 174 goals, just 10 behind retired U.S. star Abby Wambach, who holds the record.

“There’s part of me that wants to be there with them. There’s a part of me that wants to experience Sinclair getting that record, of seeing them beating the U.S. on home soil, because they’re capable of it,” Herdman offered.

“I feel in some small way that it’s part of my career where I left too early. I needed to be there in that moment with Sinclair, because she lost her dad [he died in 2016] and she’s gone through other things [her mom has multiple sclerosis], and I think she would have wanted me to be there for her.”

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