Herdman: Fearless young players enrich Canada’s World Cup squad
Feature photo: 17-year old Jessie Fleming introduced as member of the World Cup squad.
“Variety is the spice of life, eh?”
That’s what a smiling John Herdman said when asked about the mix of experienced and young players he’ll be taking to the FIFA Women’s World Cup when it kicks off in Canada on Saturday at 6 p.m. ET in Edmonton (on CTV and TSN).
“I think there’s a good chemistry. When we first brought a big wealth of younger players in, we tried to help the senior players understand where they were at, where they were coming from,” Herdman, who has been managing the Canadian women’s football team since 2011, said last week when he had his squad training in Toronto in preparation for a friendly and soon, the World Cup on Canadian turf.
The coach went on to elaborate that his staff dipped into the brains of the teenage players to explain to the seniors what is needed to help the new crop of athletes grow as teammates. What happened next was a pleasant surprise.
“It’s actually worked in the reverse, the young players have come in and they’ve brought an energy where it’s like a carefree attitude to the game,” Herdman said of the newfound vitality to his squad.
Four years ago under Italian boss Carolina Morace, Canada finished last in the World Cup, bowing out at the group stage in Germany, scoring just one goal in three losing efforts. Hiring Herdman saw the team return to a winning path, successively garnering Pan Am gold later that fall, then qualifying for London 2012 a few months later. Then at the Olympics, a crushing controversial loss to the United States in the semifinals was followed by the elation of a bronze medal victory. Herdman feels those ups and downs take a mental toll.
“A lot of our senior players, they’ve gone through some tough coaches, they’ve gone through some tough points in their careers, losses in big moments … they carry scars that open up quite easily, these young players have got none. So, the energy has sort of lifted the senior players, it’s fantastic.”
The momentum young players helped to generate in camp might’ve also worked against some of them for this round, as Herdman chose many of the stalwarts from the Olympics for the World Cup. No less than 15 members of the London 2012 team were selected to represent Canada, with a handful of youthful gems in tow, including the highly prized 17-year old midfielder Jessie Fleming.
The polite yet determined teenager recalled being at her cottage during London 2012, with her father driving her into town to watch games.
“It was just a rollercoaster of emotions,” Fleming said of the Canada-USA Olympic semifinal. “We were up, we were tied, we were down and I think the country felt a little bit robbed of not having an opportunity to play for gold.”
“But then in the bronze medal game, it just captured me as a person, captured my family and the country in just what they were able to accomplish. It was definitely a highlight and a turning point in my soccer career, something that inspired me to play for Canada and go out and play with these guys.”
When Canadians tune in to the World Cup on Saturday – or have the good fortune to watch in person at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium – they’ll be putting their trust in a process Herdman set in motion months ago, when he blended veterans with youngsters like Fleming at his World Cup camp to positive results.
“I think the senior players look at the younger players with no fear and say we want a bit of that, we need to be more like that,” the coach said. “The beauty behind it is people like Christine Sinclair are able to accelerate a Jessie Fleming’s understanding of high performance.”
“To grow up in the influence of Christine you accumulate the thousands of hours so much quicker, because she gives you all the hints of knowledge that she has picked up over her 16-year career at the highest level.”
Fleming will always remember the special moment when she was named to the World Cup squad and handed a senior national team shirt, a dream few Canadians realize, let alone teenagers. She says she feels “lucky” to be repeatedly called up to play with athletes she has idolized for much of her life.
“It’s just such a privilege and it’s a dream come true. I love this country, I love these people and to get to live with them and play day in, day out is pretty special for me.”
While this tournament will provide invaluable experience for young players like Fleming and fellow teenagers Kadeisha Buchanan, Ashley Lawrence and 22-year old Adriana Leon, Herdman will be tackling another type of growth.
“When you learn through tournaments, you have to grow through the tournament, that’s the first thing; build momentum with different approaches, and you build different parts of your strategy as tournament progresses,” the coach said of the immense undertaking before him in the coming weeks.
Canada is not ranked top five, nor would a betting person fancy his side over the likes of Germany, France or USA, Herdman admits. But the coach embraces the expectations, backs his players and feels the fans can help lift Canada to new heights.
“This is genuinely a country that embraces women’s sport. The women’s team here in our country has never been a second tier sport.”
“This is a home world cup and we’re going to have a whole nation behind us.”