Tweaking the offence to allow striker Christine Sinclair more versatility, plus defining the role of each player fuelled the Canadian women’s soccer team’s drive to claiming a spot at this summer’s Olympic Games in London.
The changes introduced by new coach John Herdman helped heal the scars inflicted by Canada’s disastrous performance at last summer’s World Cup and restored the players’ confidence that they can challenge for an Olympic medal.
“We all see the improvements we are making every single game,” said Sinclair. “It’s exciting. Heading into the World Cup that excitement was gone.” Sinclair scored twice in Canada’s 3-1 victory over Mexico in the semi-final at the CONCACAF women’s Olympic qualifying tournament. That win guaranteed the team a trip to London.
One of the adjustments made by Herdman was using Sinclair as a withdrawn forward instead of her usual role as an attacker at the top of the formation. Now players like Melissa Tancredi and Christina Julien play in front of her.
Sinclair always is a scoring threat but now the 28-year-old can use her keen passing ability to set up teammates.
The formation puts extra pressure on defenders. If they concentrate on Sinclair, she can slip the ball to an open forward. If the defenders mark the other forwards Sinclair has more room to manoeuvre.
“I love that position,” Sinclair said prior to Canada playing the U.S. in Sunday’s final of the CONCACAF tournament.
“National team coaches have always just put me up top and said ‘go score.’ It [the new formation]has brought a new dimension to my game in terms of setting up teammates, finding open spaces.” The defending Olympic champion Americans also qualified for the London Games with a 3-0 win over Costa Rica in the tournament’s other semi-final Friday night.
Herdman, an Englishman who coached the women’s program in New Zealand, replaced former coach Carolina Morace in August. Morace resigned after Canada lost three straight games and were outscored 7-1 at the World Cup.
Herdman’s offensive scheme utilizes the talents of all his players instead of relaying on the ability of one superstar.
“There is more to this team than Christine,” Herdman said.
One of the workhorses of the revamped Canadian attack is midfielder Desiree Scott. The compact Winnipeg native, nicknamed The Destroyer by her teammates, uses her speed and exceptional dribbling skills to move the ball forward.
“Desiree is key,” said Herdman. “She’s grown heaps.”
Scott said the new scheme puts the ball on the feet of more players. “We have a lot of dangerous players on our team,” she said. “This formation allows other players to step up their game and step up their roles on the team.”
To qualify for London, Canada beat Mexico, Haiti, Cuba and Costa Rica by a combined score of 16-2. Sinclair scored nine goals in those games while Tancredi had two.
Herdman also preaches that the team has starters and finishers, not starters and substitutes.
Players like Brittany Timko and Robyn Gayle understand they will be inserted into games to serve a specific role. Sometimes they will play defence to protect a lead. In other instances they will be inserted to spark the offence when the team needs a goal.
“Players know they have a part to play,” said Herdman. “There is a change in the mindset of this team.” Midfielder Sophie Schmidt said the team feels more connected. “Everybody knows their role,” she said. “Everybody knows they have something to give.”
The team has also developed patience. When the Mexicans pressed early in the semi-final the Canadians didn’t panic. They were satisfied to pass the ball and wait for an opening.
Introducing change isn’t always easy but Herdman is pleased with the way the team has adapted.
“I think they have shed an old skin,” he said. “They have bought into a new style and a new philosophy, a new self-image of themselves as footballers. They have re-invented themselves.”
Special to The Globe and Mail