Canadian soccer went through one of its biggest shake-ups ever last week when John Herdman replaced Octavio Zambrano as coach of the national men’s team.
But the groundwork for this shocking move was first laid in early 2017 when Herdman told Canada Soccer that he wanted to eventually make the transition into men’s coaching, and that he planned to step away from the Canadian women’s team after the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
The women’s side enjoyed its greatest success under Herdman, a 42-year-old Englishman who took over the team in 2011. His tenure began in the aftermath of Canada’s disastrous last-place finish at that year’s World Cup. Herdman quickly began to rebuild the program, while also developing a steady stream of talented young prospects. Herdman’s diligence and hard work paid off, as Canada climbed to a record-high fourth in the FIFA world rankings. The Reds also won back-to-back bronze medals at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.
Prior to taking the Canadian women’s job, Herdman managed New Zealand’s national women’s side from 2006 to 2011. This is his first job coaching a men’s team, and he will have his work cut out in turning the program around. Herdman inherits a Canadian team that sits 94th in the current FIFA world rankings – sandwiched between Gabon and Faroe Islands – and 10th among CONCACAF nations. What’s more, Canada has not qualified for the World Cup since 1986 in Mexico (its lone appearance), and last made it to the Hex (the final round of World Cup qualifying in the CONCACAF region) for the 1998 competition held in France.
There’s no doubt that Herdman is an accomplished coach, and that he has achieved great success in women’s soccer. But will Herdman’s skill set translate into the men’s game? That question was raised by the Toronto Sun’s Kurt Larson last week when he wrote, “A source close to Herdman warned he’ll have one opportunity to earn the respect of a testosterone-filled dressing room that will be far less emotional and far more skeptical of his ability to transition.”
It’ll be interesting to see how Canada’s players react to working with Herdman, and whether he will have to deal with chauvinistic attitudes. Herdman told Sportsnet that while he anticipates having to convince some that he can handle the job, he doesn’t think it’ll be a major problem.
“You’d be naïve not to think that there’ll be people in the football community with that perception, and that’s natural. That’s natural for most people that are transitioning, whether it’s women who have moved into men’s pro soccer, or the female referees that have moved into that side of the game,” Herdman said.
“[But] the coaching community over the last 15 years has become more open-minded. You look at the evolution of people like Rafa Benitez and Jose Mourinho, coaches who hadn’t played the game at any real level, which was sacrilege 10 to 15 years ago. You weren’t even able to get near to a team if you didn’t have a high-level playing background.”
Herdman argues that, ultimately, having proper coaching “chops” is all the matters. If you don’t have them, then players will pick up on that right away.
“You could have coached Barcelona and come take over Canada, but if the players see you don’t have a clear vision or a modern methodology, you can’t create an environment for them to succeed,” Herdman explained.
“[I will have] doubters. All I’ve got to do is make sure that I put my best effort into this. What I’ve proven in Canada already is that I have a track record which stems from a high work ethic and being honest with players, and having a very clear vision. That’s been my model during my time in Canada.”
Former Canadian national team goalkeeper Craig Forrest believes the Englishman will be able to make the transition without much fuss, posting on Twitter that he has “zero concerns about John Herdman’s coaching ability.”
Herdman does faces challenges, though, and he admits that he’ll have to change his management style and the way he deals with players now that he’s in charge of the men’s team.
Part of Herdman’s role as women’s coach was to provide his players with a long-term professional environment when they were in a national team camp, especially to team members who weren’t attached to pro clubs in the National Women’s Soccer League or who were playing in the NCAA ranks. As such, he was an instructor, as much as he was a coach, teaching his players how to become professionals.
Notwithstanding a few exceptions, members of the men’s team are already in professional environments, playing in Major League Soccer, and for teams across Europe, and in North and South America.
Herdman will also have far less time with his players now, as pro clubs of the men’s side are far more reluctant to release their players for national team duty any more than they are required. By contrast, NWSL clubs work out agreements with national teams that allow their payers to be away for long stretches of time.
“How I communicate will be different. I’ll have to take a different approach due the environment and culture of the men’s team,” Herdman said.