John Herdman hasn’t had to bolster his players with any special messages of motivation, or implement any team-building strategies since they touched down in England.
Ten months after he took on the task of mending the battered psyche of Canada’s women’s soccer team, and a day before his squad opens its London Olympic campaign, the coach said his players are all-business, and more than ready to play on sport’s biggest stage.
“That’s the brilliance of this group, there’s a maturity there,” Herdman said following his team’s final practice in Coventry before its opener. “They’re managing internally everything they need to to be ready for the games. So my message has been really simple: keep doing what you’re doing.
“I think the key is connectivity through this tournament, starting with the game (Wednesday), and that connectivity is doing everything we need to do to get on the podium, on and off the field.”
The Canadians open the Olympics versus World Cup champion Japan in Coventry on Wednesday, two days before the opening ceremonies in London. Canada is seeking redemption after a horrible showing at the World Cup last summer in Germany — a last-place finish that left the team’s confidence in tatters, and led to the departure of head coach Carolina Morace and the hiring of Herdman.
“I would like another three years with them [to prepare for London], that would have been nice to be in the same position as the Japanese coach,” Herdman said, laughing. “But the benefit is things are still fresh at the minute, the girls are enjoying working with us and we’re savouring every moment with this tournament.”
The Canadians face what should be the toughest test of the tournament right out of the gate, playing a Japanese squad that knocked off the perennial power United States in a penalty shootout to win the World Cup in Germany.
Canadian midfielder Sophie Schmidt calls Japan a “Barcelona-type team.”
“Japan is a special team, just in the way they pass the ball,” Schmidt said. “We’ve had discussions. We know we won’t have the ball for most of the game, so we just have to take advantage when we do, make most of our chances when we do get them.”
The seventh-ranked Canadians and No. 3 Japan have played each other to three wins, three losses and three draws. But the Japanese have been on the rise since their fourth-place finish in Beijing.
“They’re a pleasure to watch and have taken the women’s game to another level in terms of technical ability,” Herdman said. “Tactically they are very well organized and over the years they’ve been able to mask their weakness, which is their physical presence on the pitch, with real tactical discipline.
“It will be a tough game for us, a very tough game. But a great opportunity as well, playing the world champion.”
Since arriving in England last week, the Canadians made a brief stop in London to tour the athletes village and receive their Canadian gear before travelling the 150 kilometres northwest to Coventry where they’re being housed in a hotel with the three other teams in their group and men’s teams from Belarus and New Zealand.
They were able to walk the pitch of Coventry Stadium, normally home to Coventry City, on Monday. The team held a light training session Tuesday at its practice facility.
“Mainly just chilled out,” Herdman said. “Getting in the right frame of mind for the game.”
Frame of mind was perhaps the biggest challenge Herdman faced when he took over the team last fall. He hired Ceri Evans as the team’s “mental trainer,” a New Zealander who worked with the All Blacks leading into their victorious rugby World Cup campaign.
Herdman said the team hasn’t felt the need for team-building sessions in between their practices and physiotherapy sessions in Coventry.
“They’re such a cool group, they get on really well, they entertain themselves well, and to be honest, football is their job, and they work a pretty solid shift in the daytime between practices, et cetera. They’re just enjoying being footballers.”
On entertaining themselves, the coach wasn’t lying. The players and staff recently shot a video in the locker-room of themselves singing Celine Dion’s “The Power of Love” that was posted on Dion’s website along with a good luck message:
“We hope to hear them sing their victory anthem, Celine’s ”The Power of Love,“ many more times. Good luck ladies!”
Canada was eighth four years ago in Beijing, its only other Olympic appearance.
Since earning its Olympic berth at the CONCACAF qualifying tournament in Vancouver in January, the Canadians have won seven games and lost four, including a 3-1 loss to fourth-ranked Sweden in March.
In a tune-up tournament in Switzerland last week, the Canadians downed Colombia 1-0 and New Zealand 2-0 before losing 2-1 to Brazil, the team they beat in a shootout to win the Pan American Games last fall.
Canada meets 61st-ranked South Africa on Saturday, and then battles Sweden in Newcastle — Herdman’s hometown — next Tuesday, a crucial game that could well determine their Olympic fate.
Japan recently suffered a 4-1 thrashing by the Americans, but Herdman isn’t putting much stock in that result, saying coach Norio Sasaki was likely using the game to tinker with his lineup or formation.
Homare Sawa, Japan’s 33-year-old team captain, will be the player Canada will be most concerned with — Japan’s version of Canadian captain and star striker Christine Sinclair.
Sawa made her international debut when she was 15, scoring four goals in her first match. She scored a hat trick against Mexico at last summer’s World Cup and went on to earn the Golden Boot as top scorer (five goals) and Golden Ball as tournament MVP.
She was also named FIFA’s women’s player of the year.