She’s now a little over two years into her tenure as director of Canada’s Women’s EXCEL Program and Bev Priestman is building an impressive resume. Her team made it to the quarterfinals of 2014 U-17 Women’s World Cup and won the 2015 U-15 CONCACAF Championship.
She’s currently at the helm of a U-14/U-17 EXCEL camp in Vancouver, which features a group of 26 girls from across the country. They’re working toward March’s qualifiers for the 2016 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup.
The scope of Priestman’s duties is vast, as the EXCEL program is in place to ensure more girls can work through the Canadian Soccer Association’s Pathway system to play high calibre soccer and eventually secure a spot on the national stage.
She’s already worked with Jessie Fleming, now a regular on the Canadian senior team, Sura Yekka, who has begun her NCAA career with Michigan, and Sarah Kinzner, a member of the recent U-23 Pan American squad.
A native of England, Priestman took some time from the camp to speak with Sportsnet:
What’s the one thing that stood out about the national program when you first arrived in Canada?
I was blown away by the potential. If you look in Canada, you’ve got significant numbers and therefore, with a lot of numbers, it’s a challenge picking the right players. I think what we’ve started to shift is the type of player that we’re picking. I think a lot of my role, particularly with the system and intake, is making sure we find the right players. When I say the right players, it’s players that can be very comfortable on the ball and meet some of our core facts we’ve established.
I think we’re young and it’s about guessing their potential, predicting their future potential versus, I would argue, picking the quickest, the strongest to go and win an event. I think we’ve moved away from that now and we’re more looking at the conveyor belt and how we move players up the system and which players are more likely to move up the system long term.
A lot of national team members, regardless of age or experience, along with coaches John Herdman and Daniel Worthington, talk about having “Canadian DNA” and what it means to wear the Maple Leaf. Where does that come into your group and how do you start instilling that?
You have to have a certain type of player to play that DNA. Secondly, where it comes into the program is even away from the U-14 to U-17; it’s actually down at the Regional EXCEL Centres, which obviously falls under my banner as well. It’s making sure that these players, every single day, are working on the things we believe they need to have in their armoury. So, when they come through that National EXCEL pathway to a tournament, they’ve been doing, working on the skills sets required and some of the tactics to slot into this environment quite easily.
Basically, Regional EXCEL, we’ve had about 108 visits, I think it is, at those centres from national staff in the last year and that’s a lot of time spent working on alignment and making sure that the curriculum they’re delivering is what we’d like to see delivered. That’s evident in the shift of different players, different provinces, they’ve got different numbers in our system now, so that’s exciting.
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What kind of an impact did the recent FIFA Women’s World Cup have on the youngsters?
I think it inspired the group. If I’m a player at the National EXCEL level and I get to go and watch the women’s national team, the likes of Christine Sinclair, but you’ve also got Kadeisha Buchanan, who is within reaching distance of these girls, doing the things we talk about in every camp, some of the principals, the style of play, the different patterns we work on. These girls were doing it on such a global stage. I think it inspired them and also, I think, it brought some reality to the future of where we need to head in terms of goal scoring, all of the things we need to talk about.
We got to see that on the world stage and we also got to see the other part of the DNA we talk about, which is the team was very, very sound defensively and I think that this group particularly, with the types of players we are picking, we can’t lose that in our DNA.
It really helped me as a coach to bring alive all of the different strands that you have to have to play well on the world stage. I think it inspired them and brought excitement amongst the group and then, you’ve got the likes of the Sarah Stratigakis, who went to the Pan American Games and got to play with some of the players that featured in the Women’s World Cup. Again, that brings an extra bit of excitement and the system is calling them in many ways.
You mention being sound defensively for the World Cup. On the other hand, if you look at that tournament or even at the Pan American Games, Canada struggled to score. Does that at all trickle down to your level in terms of trying to solve the scoring problem?
I think it’s nothing new to John and myself. One thing is to get more final acts and we’ve known that since John took over, and I think it’s something we’ve always tried to influence at the youth level. Yeah, I do think it does trickle down, too. It’s part of an overall system. I don’t think it’s anything new to what we do and it’s something we always work on. Hopefully, in years to come, that’ll be evident.
What’s it like having former senior players transition into coaching roles, such as Candace Chapman, and become part of the EXCEL staff?
For me, it’s a part of the environment that if you look at my camp, I had Candace Chapman. I’ve also had Diana Matheson and Carmelina Moscato. I’ve had a lot of players in and around that group and in the group was the likes of a Jessie Fleming. You can’t underestimate the golden nuggets these girls get from just a bit of advice, an arm around the shoulder and if I look at what Candace specifically brings, like I’ve talked about, we’ve converted a lot of positions into the back line. It’s just the type of player that we’re looking for and Candace is really bringing alive how to defend, but also the style of play that John introduced going into the  Olympics. She lived that. She’s got a bronze medal around her neck. I don’t think you can buy that kind of experience. Candace is really valuable for the players for advice, emotionally, mentally, but also on the pitch, technically and tactically. I think it’s fantastic.
What are you working on with this U-14 to U-17 group and what stands out with what you see on the pitch? Are you working on specific tactics given their age range and the fact many of them are still growing into their bodies?
What we’ve done is we have a national curriculum that we mapped out. Some of these girls will have six years in our National EXCEL system. If I look at some of the girls I’ve got now, they’ll be in for six years and in that we have all of the different things we think a player should’ve ticked off in their curriculum. In many ways, it’s like school and you tick off things camp by camp. Linked with that is Regional EXCEL curriculum, which is more focused on that controlled DNA that we talked about before. We want to keep the ball. If I look at the percentage of time in Regional EXCEL, typically they spend about 70 percent of the time with the ball and in possession. At National EXCEL, with my particular group, we spent, I think, it’s something like 60 or 50 percent again focusing on being in possession.
When I talk about defending, I wouldn’t say it’s a key feature of this group, but I think by nature the kind of players we’re picking are more comfortable on the ball and we’ve converted positions that by nature, you have to cover some basis of defending. I think, very much, the focus is on keeping the ball and playing a certain way, like we want to in the national team.
With some of the senior players being in the older echelon now, how does your group deal with depth and having to fill those positions?
In my case, specifically, it’s more at looking at a traditional centre-back or fullback and the system of play we’re looking to move towards, it’s a different type of player. When I first arrived to Canada, you’re looking at centre-backs and they’re all big, strong, aerially strong, but maybe with the ball they can’t cope under pressure. If I can’t find that, then it’s a case of finding some very technically proficient players and if they aren’t strong enough in the midfield, but they have some good capacity, it’s converting them into different positions.
That’s the case particularly with this group and what we’ve done. I think, for me, it’s finding the right players, the right skill sets that meet this profile that I’ve talked about. For me, it’s great because we’ve already got that mapped out. Like a centre-back needs to have all of these competencies, that as coach, that’s great because I already fully understand that between the Regional EXCELs on that. Then it’s the case of finding the profile of a player that fits that mould.
The recent U-17 Women’s World Cup result saw a quarterfinal finish for Canada and the U-15’s captured the CONCACAF title. What’s the next step?
If I look at the current group, we have quite a few players who are eligible for two U-17s, which effectively makes them eligible for the U-15s in 2016, also. We’ve got six players, so for those six, it’ll be a bit of a checkpoint at the U-15 CONCACAF tournament. We don’t know when that is, but it is in 2016.
Obviously, the group is going into qualification for the U-17 Women’s World Cup in March and the World Cup at the end of September. Between then and now, we have quarterly camps that we tick of those different curriculum boxes. Our next one will be in January.