With the Women’s World Cup less than nine months away, preparations are well underway for the host team. Residency camp, fitness testing and player evaluations are the focus for John Herdman at the moment. This is all part of a very busy fall for the Canadian head coach, who is also gearing up to host Japan twice in friendly action at the end of October.
Thirty-three players are making their way in and out of Burnaby’s Fortius Centre over the next few weeks. The attendee list includes players who have been suiting up professionally here in North America and across the pond, as well as familiar names from the recent U-20 Women’s World Cup.
The final squad will consist of 23 players who will don the maple leaf in front of a sea of red and white. Leading up to that moment, a number of tough roster decisions will have to be made by the coaching staff. The task of making those selections will not be easy. The skipper understands this is part of his job and is preparing to put forth the best roster of Canadian players to represent the country at the Women’s World Cup.
Off the top, I’d like to ask you about a few players who have had significant injuries for a good chunk of the year. How are Josee Belanger, Lauren Sesselmann and Carmelina Moscato fairing?
Josee had an ankle injury. She sustained that playing in the W-League, but she’s back training to full health. It’s fantastic. The medical staff here have done a great job with her. That’s the same with Carmelina. They’re two players we have to monitor their loads at the moment, but they’re back on the pitch and are training. Carm played last night for 80 minutes for the first time for nearly a year. She was looking sharp.
Lauren’s progressing nicely. When you’re coming back from an ACL, it’s a very carefully prescribed program where it’s never a straight path. I think the good news with Lauren is she’s progressing. She’s on track and on track means we’re hoping for a return to play in the Cyprus Cup next year. That would be our goal for Lauren. However, if she gets back earlier, then fantastic.
Residency camp is interesting because you get to observe and work with a large group of girls versus a smaller camp before a friendly match. How did you select this group of 33?
Our whole goal was about contracting players so we could have 80 per cent of players, our core players, in the NWSL. When the NWSL shut down, we were able to get those players ready for our camps. It’s never as straightforward as you want it to be. We found ourselves in a situation where some players made the decision to go off to Europe and some of those decisions were because they weren’t comfortable playing in the NWSL and they prefer to play in a different league. With those players, they’ve missed the first camp period, which is our testing period. They’ll catch up when they come in November. Those are players like Stephanie Labbe, Marie-Eve Nault, Emily Zurrer, while we managed to get Desiree Scott in this week, which was great. She’s only missed a week. And players like Allysha Chapman that we brought in on trial. She actually forfeited the last three weeks of her season to get the opportunity to push and see if she can make this squad.
Like you mentioned, a number of these 33 are playing with clubs overseas. What’s the best way for you to gauge how they’re doing because at times, video might not be available and stats don’t always give you the full picture.
That’s the beauty with the way technology is now. We have individual performance plans and we have our technical staff. People have the responsibility for taking care of each one of those players. We actually do get video footage every single week on these players. That tells you the level of organization and performance in the Swedish league. The coaching staff there has been fantastic. They have the video to us two days after the game and when we want to connect with the players in our individual performance meetings, we have the footage we can talk to and we can identify areas we want them to keep working on or to improve, while readying to come back to the national team. Three or four years ago, you would’ve never had that form of analysis in a women’s league. It just shows how the game has really shifted professionally, particularly in leagues in Sweden, Germany and the US.
It’s fair to say Canada has some great depth in the goalkeeping department. Although your starting position is pretty much locked going into the Women’s World Cup, what do you say to the other keepers who are waiting in the wings?
It’s about a constant state of readiness. We know what happens around these World Cups because things change in a heartbeat. If I look back on 2012, Karina LeBlanc sustained an injury a month before the Olympics and she was playing really well up until that point. She had to fight to get ready for the Olympic Games. I remember prior to the Olympic qualifiers, Erin McLeod fractured her finger in a training session. You just never know. We’re blessed in that area since we’ve got a plethora of goalkeepers that could step in and perform. I imagine there are teams around the world who’d love to have Stephanie Labbe goaltending for them or Karina LeBlanc. The reality is Erin McLeod’s in the best shape of her career. She’s really at her peak and for the other two, it’s about pushing Erin to the next level and keeping her honest. At the same time, it’s about being ready.
Let’s talk about the recent U-20 Women’s World Cup. Your current roster of 33 includes some of that squad. What did you see from the other players on Andrew Olivieri’s team who currently aren’t in residency? Is there a chance you’ll look at them in the future?
I think the beauty with the women’s 20s is the majority of the players were already members of the senior team. We’d already targeted Jessie Fleming, Sura Yekka, Rebecca Quinn, Ashley Lawrence and Nichelle Prince. A whole lot of young players have been given that opportunity. That’s how connected our system is. I’m at most of the training sessions the U-20s hold and we have a central venue here in Burnaby where everything’s held. The women’s national team staff are very hands on in that environment. When you mention the U-20 Women’s World Cup, I was able to live in that experience with the team and get to see which players can handle the pressure, which players can handle off-field pressures, what their character’s like and whether they’re ready to make that step.
I think if you look at some of the positive performances, like Nichelle Prince or Janine Beckie and Emma Fletcher, we have some strong performances from those players. They showed flashes, at times, where you think they may be able to do something for the women’s national team. However, the reality is, you’ve got to get the balance right. You have to make sure you take in players who are ready at this stage. I think there’ll be some opportunities for one or two of those others players that stepped up for the U-20s. Janine Beckie, we’ll give her an opportunity at some point, because I think physically she could potentially make the jump to the next level. She hasn’t had the opportunity to come into the senior environment yet.
I think there’s a reality check as well though. I’ve been working for the last two years to find the right group of players and I’m sort of at that stage now where it’s about finalizing that squad as opposed to keeping the net spread and looking at talent. We really have to focus on these resources that we’ve got now, in front of us, those horses that are in the stable.
Final question for you, which I’m going to relate to hockey because I think the situations are similar. Prior to the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, the Canadian brass made a point of saying they weren’t selecting their team based on sentimentality or players who had been loyal to the program for long periods of time. They were going to pick the strongest roster available because that would give them the best chance to win gold as the host country. A lot of girls have been with this Canadian soccer program for a decade. How difficult is it going to be for you as a coach to make that decision for the 23-player roster that’ll represent their country on home soil?
It’ll be an awful decision. It’s the hardest job in sport. You’ve seen over this last two year period, there have been players who have moved on. That’s part of your coaching responsibility to this country. You have to make sure that the door remains open and I think you’ve seen that in some of our selections. In big games, take the US game, three of your back four are teenagers. Can you imagine the sentiment in that sort of game where senior players want to be on the pitch competing against the US? You don’t get bigger games than that. As a coach, I’ve had to make those tough decisions to make sure people are aware it’ll always come down to the best players playing for Canada. I think there’s an internal understanding in our squad. The girls know me well enough now to know they need to be above that 80 per cent in character and 80 per cent plus in their performances on the pitch. If you reach those standards — it doesn’t matter who they are, they could be a 15-year-old or a 35-year-old — they’ll find the pitch.
About the author:
Sandra Prusina is a journalist and broadcaster based out of Calgary, Canada. She has covered women’s soccer since 2010. She is also a segment reporter for Olympic Broadcast Services, traveling to Vancouver, London and Sochi to work for the host broadcaster.