John Herdman knows his players face a tough task heading into Friday night’s international friendly against the United States.
The head coach of the Canadian women’s soccer team has seen all of the eye-popping American stats – unbeaten on home soil since 2004 and a current run of 39 straight games without a loss.
With Canada set to host the Women’s World Cup in 2015, Herdman has been in the process of reshaping his team with new tactics and an infusion of youth.
A positive result for the seventh-ranked Canadians against their biggest rivals – even in an exhibition game – would be a massive boost.
“It’s important. You play the world No. 1. They’re unbeaten in something like 40 games,” Herdman said on a conference call Thursday. “They’re an absolute machine, but at some point someone’s going to trip (them up) and every time we come into these games, we want to be the team that does that.”
Canada lost to the U.S. in that controversial 2012 Olympic semifinal before falling 3-0 in Toronto last June in a game where the hosts frustrated the powerhouse Americans through 70 minutes until finally conceding.
Herdman will be hoping for some of that same defensive resolve in Frisco, Texas, noting the longer the game stays scoreless, the longer it benefits the visitors.
“While everyone’s got the pressure of playing the world No. 1, they’ve got the pressure of being No. 1,” said Herdman. “Expectation is the mother of all crisis and I think that’s a huge thing. The U.S. like to score early. I think as soon as they score early in games it takes the pressure off them and they play freely.
“In Toronto we were able to restrict them and show that they looked uncomfortable for long periods of the game.”
The problem that afternoon was when Canada tried to open things up, the U.S. countered quickly.
“We became vulnerable in transition. I think that is the area where ... the game will be won and lost – in that transitional period,” said Herdman. “We have to capitalize on the transition and make sure they don’t open the door like they did in Canada.”
Herdman has selected a more experienced squad for this game than he did for Canada’s friendlies against South Korea and Mexico in the fall and the Brazil tournament the team played in December.
As always, Canada will be led by star striker Christine Sinclair, but Herdman also has Josee Belanger and Jonelle Filigno as alternative attacking options with both returning after long absences.
“It’s exciting. We’ve been working on Belanger as a project,” said Herdman. “It’ll certainly have a big impact in our environment with the pace and power that I think has been lacking at times.”
Belanger hasn’t played for Canada since 2010 because of an ankle injury, while Filigno – who just finished her NCAA career – participated at the 2012 Olympics. Herdman said a ligament injury in Filigno’s last college game forced her to miss the December tournament but added she’s good to go against the Americans.
Canada will probably need both if they’re going to get anything out of the game in Texas.
The Americans are 67-0-10 since their last loss in the U.S. nearly 10 years ago and have outscored opponents 130-29 during their current 39-game unbeaten streak.
“I don’t even think we ever talk about the fact that we have an unbeaten streak at home,” said American striker Sidney Leroux. “It’s just like we go out every game, and we expect the best out of each other, and we expect to win. ... I’ve never seen that attitude so strong.”
The U.S. won’t have star striker Alex Morgan on Friday, but still has plenty of options, including all-time international goal-scoring leader Abby Wambach and the Canadian-born Leroux.
“It’s obviously emotional for me, but in a good way,” said Leroux, who was booed in Toronto after scoring in June. “I love to play them, and especially what happened there, and now the fact that we get to play them on our turf is like really, really cool.”
Sinclair’s 147 career goals, which ranks second behind Wambach for active players, are 85 more than the total goals scored combined by the rest of the Canada’s roster. Sinclair scored three times in the Olympic meeting, all giving Canada one-goal leads. Wambach scored the last tying goal before Morgan added the winner in a 4-3 victory.
Herdman said his players will have to play within his system Friday, but also can’t be afraid to take their chances when presented.
“There’s certain behaviours tactically that we’ve got to make sure we’re rigid to,” he said. “And then there’s certain behaviours where players have got to play with that freedom where they’re not frightened to do things in the attacking third that’s required to win football matches.”
And while, Herdman maintains Canada isn’t far off from sticking with the world’s elite, the test against the Americans should give a good indication of where things stand with a little more than 16 months remaining before the Women’s World Cup.
“I think we’re in a decent space. The result (Friday), it will be interesting,” said Herdman. “The U.S. has blown teams away recently, and I mean blown them away. Our job is to make sure that we try and reverse that trend.”
NOTES – The U.S. leads the all-time series with Canada 46-3-5. ... Herdman said he’s hopeful striker Kara Lang, who continues to attempt a comeback from two serious knee injuries that forced her to retire, will be able to participate in Canada’s tournament in Cyprus in March.