Q&A: Canada’s coach on young stars, 2019 Women’s World Cup, VAR


Christine Sinclair. (Andy Jacobsohn/AP)

For Kenneth Heiner-Møller, the job isn’t done.

Yes, Canada qualified for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, and his team sits fifth in the current world rankings.

But the goal is to turn Canada into what he calls a “Tier 1” side in the women’s game, alongside powerhouse nations such as the United States and Germany.

On that score, the Danish-born coach has some work to do, but he feels the Canadian women’s team is trending in the right direction.

Heiner-Møller spoke at length on a variety of subjects during a one-on-one interview with Sportsnet, including Canada’s loss to the U.S. in last month’s Concacaf Women’s Championship final, qualifying for next summer’s World Cup in France, the team’s progress since he took over earlier this year, and his views on the Video Assistant Referee system.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Sportsnet: Obviously, Canada reached its goal of qualifying for the 2019 World Cup. But how would you evaluate the team’s overall performance at the recent Concacaf championship?

Kenneth Heiner-Møller: Every time you come out of a tournament, it’s what happened last that tends to make the lasting impression. “Disappointed” is the wrong word, but I really wanted to win the trophy, and I know the team wanted to do that as well. The first seven to 10 days after the final I was more looking into what we could and should have done differently, if anything. If you only look at our performances, because the opposition wasn’t the best in the group stage or in the semifinals, I’m pretty satisfied. I think we came out of that tournament with great experience and still a positive approach to be able to win it at some point, so that was a good outcome.

What would you have done differently in the final?

If you play a Tier 1 opponent, you need to have central players defending very well, and I thought we definitely missed Desiree Scott [out injured] in that match. She fills a role where you can just make sure the area in front of the centre backs is covered. Rebecca Quinn has so many different skills-sets; she’s very good on the ball. We played her and Jessie Fleming just in front of the defence and that exposed our centre backs a little bit, but it gave us something more offensively. We could have found a better balance in the midfield. I was very pleased with how we tried to play out of pressure. But I think we weren’t as strong in the next phase after that – we need to stretch opponents with our width once we get beyond that initial pressure, and I didn’t think we achieved that against the U.S.

Is that something the team needs to improve upon ahead of the World Cup?

Definitely. We often talk about [attacking] in the final third, but it depends on the opposition, and how we can play within their structure. Teams don’t want us to play within their structure, and vice versa. But I think we have the players who can play in tight spaces, and we proved at the tournament and throughout this year that we can force our game within their structure. Now it’s just a matter of having the patience and vision that once you get past that first wave of pressure of keeping the ball a little more instead of going directly in the final third. It’s about creating little opportunities that can lead to bigger ones. What I’m trying to do with this team is to create better quality final acts rather than just more final acts. Instead of having 12 crosses into the box, I’d rather have six crosses where we have our fullback at the opposite post.

You had a number of teenagers on the squad who played in their first major tournament for the senior team. How do you think they did?

They proved themselves why they were there. They proved it when they stepped onto the pitch. Players like Julia Grosso, she is a player for the future. There are players who are still coming through that should excite us, and proved themselves of worthy of playing in this competition.

You took over from John Herdman in January when you were handed the coaching reins after serving as his assistant, so the “honeymoon” period is over. Is the team where you thought it would be at this point in your tenure?

I think we’re tracking pretty good. After the 2016 Olympics, there was this core plan, and because I worked under John, we did a lot of this together. Part of the plan was that in 2018 we wanted to experiment a little bit. “Experiment” is the wrong word because we’re not trying things just because it’s fun, but rather it’s about how can we develop this team having a new game and how to execute against a Tier 1 opponent, about having young players in central roles on the pitch against Tier 1 opponents. Trying all of these different things so we can learn from them, and then next year and the year after that we’re ready to conform. With that, you might experience a dip in performance in the short term, and we’ve lost four games this year, which we didn’t want to do. But it’s part of the 2018 plan to try different things in order to learn about the borders of this team, and identify the growth areas. I think we did take some very good steps to be ready for next year. We’re tracking very good; I think better than most people expected.

Canada was on the wrong side of some bad calls during the tournament, including in the final when Alex Morgan’s goal for the U.S., which made it 2-0, should have been ruled out for offside. How frustrating was that for you as a coach from the touchline?

I don’t think I’ll ever grow out of being frustrated when I think the ref has made a bad call. [laughs] But what I’ve been trying to grow out of is getting emotional, because if you’re emotional it affects your judgement and the players will then get frustrated.

What do you think of the Video Assistant Referee system that’s used in top European leagues such as Serie A and La Liga, and was deployed at this summer’s FIFA World Cup in Russia?

I watched the World Cup and they had a few instances with VAR. Going into it, I was concerned how it would affect the game, but I think they managed it all right. I’ll support VAR, but I just don’t want it to ruin the game. I just have this fear that the ref sitting in front of the VAR screen will stop the game every single time they have the slightest insecurity about an incident, and then you’ll have these 115-minute matches where all the intensity goes out of the game. If VAR can be very objective, great. But if it affects the game too much, I’d have issues with it.

VAR isn’t slated to be used at next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup. Would you like it to be?

For me it’s a yes, but we’d have to find ways of making it more refined and efficient. I just have concerns about fans turning off the game because there are too many stoppages and breaks, and the entertainment value just diminishes. I don’t want to see that happening.

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