SAN PEDRO DEL PINATAR, Spain – In his seven years directing the Canadian women’s soccer program, John Herdman developed a reputation for being a meticulous planner, trying to be on top of everything that can be controlled.
An example of that came in the lead-up to the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup as Canada prepared to host the tournament. One of the things Herdman had his staff do was to time how long it would take him and his players at halftime to get into the dressing rooms at the World Cup venues. Not a second was to go to waste.
That same attention to detail is being applied by Herdman in his early days in charge of the Canadian men’s team. While the on-field product will naturally take some time to develop, the refrain from players in the first camp held by Herdman is that objectives have been clearly communicated by the new coach.
“He has a lot of ideas and he’s really clear. I think he’s really committed,” midfielder Samuel Piette told Sportsnet. “He knows the culture, as well, having been with the women’s side. It’s good to have a guy that was part of the program and transmitting his ideas through the men’s program.”
Piette is emblematic of the normal Canadian player experience over the last few years, as many members of this team have dealt with a revolving door of coaches. Piette made his debut in 2012 under Stephen Hart when he was only 17. Now 23, he is playing for his seventh different Canadian men’s team coach. At least in these early days under Herdman, the players know success will only come when the team starts to expect success.
“I think he wants us to change a bit the mentality. Before we used to accept mediocrity,” Piette said. “Failing was a normal thing for us. That’s what we want to change. He has a clear objective and clear ideas. It’s a winning mentality and being on the front foot imposing our game.”
In Saturday’s 1-0 friendly win against New Zealand, Canada gutted through a shaky opening stretch where it easily could have found itself trailing. But with flashes from some of the younger players and some patient build-up, Canada stayed organized and earned a win in Herdman’s first match in charge.
“We stuck to [Herdman’s game plan] the whole game,” said goal scorer Tosaint Ricketts. “As you could hear, our communication was loud on the field. Everyone knew everyone else’s job, and it helped us down there in those nervy moments. You saw we built from that in the first 15 minutes on.”
Herdman kept the mood light in training during the week leading up to Saturday’s contest. For this training camp, he brought over some of the same staff members he used when he coached Canada’s women’s team.
Herdman explained this camp was about the players hearing his vision for the program, getting to know him and laying down a tactical foundation. The real test as to whether the buy-in is complete from the players will be when the going gets tough while playing in challenging CONCACAF environments that have long been the bane of the Canadian program.
“I don’t think you ever really know that until the time comes when big moments happen,” Herdman stated. “I think the big moments are coming in the CONCACAF Nations League later this year but I would say they’ve been really receptive. They’re taking on board some of the elements of the identity we’ve been shifting.”
Canada’s early opponents in the new Nations League won’t exactly strike fear in most teams’ hearts, but given the unpredictable nature of road games in CONCACAF, there is always the possibility of a slip-up should there be a breakdown between players and coach.
“It’s going to be interesting,” Piette offered. “I think our next meeting is in September. So, it’s going to be a long period of not being together so it’s just to get his ideas and make sure we apply them when we get together.”
Quickly getting his team up to speed is where Herdman’s meticulous nature will be a benefit.
Unlike the women’s game, necessity dictates the men’s side must make the most of short international windows, and get the players in and organized right away. The switch to the much shorter camps is maybe the biggest transition Herdman has had to make, but the players seem to enjoy how the camp was run.
“Organizationally, it’s been fantastic,” veteran defender David Edgar said. “We know what we’re doing and when we’re doing it. It’s a clear vision and that’s key. We’re all on the same page and everyone has to be on the same page. I think, so far, the boys are buying into it and that’s massive for us.”
As the players now return to their clubs, the work accomplished this week in southeastern Spain can’t get lost in a vacuum. To prevent that, the development must continue even if the Canadian team isn’t together.
“Through the MLS season, the most important part for us is to stay connected with the group,” Herdman said. “We’ve set up online platforms that we’ve been working with the players through so that there isn’t a hiatus forgetting about our culture so the players know what’s coming. It’s not goodbye for Canada until September.”
With victory in the bag against New Zealand in the admittedly first modest hurdle of Herdman’s tenure, Canada has now established a base and it seems some trust has been built.
Herdman shared instructions many times during the game with goalkeeper Milan Borjan, and with a first victory and clean sheet, it appears the players do share their new coach’s vision.
“Speaking to [them] afterwards, they’re happy with what we set up,” Herdman said. “Speaking with Samuel Piette, he says there’s just so much more to come.”
“And I think there is.”