The London Olympics just got a little more special for John Herdman.
More than 30 years after Herdman's lifelong love affair with soccer began at St. James' Park, he will lead Canada's women's soccer team onto the same storied pitch in his native Newcastle.
The Canadians will battle Sweden in the third and final game of the preliminary round at Newcastle United's stadium — now officially called Sports Direct Arena — in what could be their key game of the Olympic women's soccer tournament.
It's a park the 36-year-old Herdman knows well.
“I stood on Gallowgate End (the stadium's southern stand) with my dad when I was five years old,” Herdman said. “This is an amazing opportunity, a dream come true, local lad leads his team out at the ground he went to as a kid to watch his favourite team.
“I watched from the stand, always dreamed of leading a team out there one day. . . Brilliant.”
The No. 7-ranked Canadians were drawn into Group F with World Cup winner and No. 3-ranked Japan, fifth-ranked Sweden, and South Africa (65) on Tuesday, a group Herdman said “could have been worse, could have been better.”
Their toughest test will come two days before the Games even open. Canada faces Japan on July 25 at Coventry's Ricoh Arena, two days before the opening ceremonies.
“They're in a bit of a league of their own at the minute, quite the special team, they're playing a style of football that I'm sure has taken women's football to another level,” Herdman said of Japan.
The Canadians take on South Africa on July 28 in Coventry, then wrap up the preliminary round versus the Swedes on July 31.
Reigning Olympic champion United States was drawn into Group G — what Herdman believes is the “group of death” — with France, Colombia and North Korea. The 2012 host team was drawn in Group E to face New Zealand as well as Cameroon and Brazil.
The top two teams from each group plus two of the three third-place teams advance to the quarter-finals.
Herdman, who attended Tuesday's draw at Wembley Stadium, has had some success against Japan. His New Zealand women's team played the Japanese to a 1-1 draw until the 65th minute in the opening round of last summer's World Cup. Japan scored on a free kick to beat the Kiwis 2-1, en route to winning the Cup.
“The biggest thing against a team like Japan is you have to impose yourself physically, you have to press them, it's about having an ability to be fit enough to press them for the 90 minutes of game,” Herdman said. “As soon as you stop putting pressure on them higher up the pitch they get the players on the ball that can really create things, which is their midfield unit.”
Herdman called the game against Sweden the “tournament-breaker. . . the real do-or-die game.” It's a game he believes the Canadians can win despite the fact the Swedes are perennial top-four finishers in any major tournament.
The Canadians played the Swedes, bronze medalists at the 2011 World Cup, in a pair of friendlies over the past few months, beating them 2-1 in November and then losing 3-1 late last month.
“Sweden gives you a chance to possess the ball, and that's what we have to work on,” Herdman said. “If we're to beat Sweden, we have to be comfortable possessing the ball and breaking down their deep defensive unit and I think that's the next level for this team.”
Herdman laughed when asked if his presence at St. James' Park for that game will have Newcastle fans cheering for Canada.
“I'm hoping it can be something special for the locals that they can get behind a team and have some connection there and with any chance the Canadian team will be the darlings of the northeast,” Herdman said. “We'll do everything we can to try and get the black and white behind this team.”
Herdman has talked about winning a medal in London, and said after Tuesday's draw he still believes that could happen.
“I think we're not too far away from these big Tier 1 teams,” the coach said. “It's not just being able to pass the ball, it's about tactical flexibility in the game, it's about being able to get (striker) Christine Sinclair on the ball in the right areas. . . I think if we're able to put that together, then this team's got a big chance.
“On our day, with the right mindset, and if we tactically get it right, and the players have done all the work they needed to do in these three months, I think we've got a chance.”
Canada lost 2-1 to the U.S. in the quarter-finals of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The Canadians are in the middle of a three-week training camp in Vancouver. They'll get a week off to go home and see family “and switch off from football.” They'll train for three more weeks in Vancouver in May then travel to Moncton, N.B., to host China on May 30. They'll take another week's break then head back to Vancouver for another three weeks training before playing the U.S. on June 30.
They'll travel to Switzerland on July 5 for a pre-Olympic tournament before arriving in London.
The Olympic quarter-finals are scheduled for Aug. 3, the semis are Aug 6, and the medal games Aug. 9. The game for bronze will be played in Coventry, with the gold-medal match scheduled for London's Wembley Stadium.