Less than two weeks away from the opening match of the Women's World Cup, Canadian coach John Herdman wanted to see how his team would match up against a tough African team that plays stiff, man-marking soccer. It wouldn't be pretty, and his players would likely leave the pitch frustrated, but Herdman doesn't mind that.
So that's how, while it was in Southern Ontario this week doing final preparations for a World Cup on home soil, Canada's national team played to a scoreless tie in a training match Monday against Nigeria, an opponent that plays the unconventional man-to-man style that Canada rarely sees. The two sides battled through an uneventful match in high humidity and strong winds at Toronto FC's Kia Training Ground, and while Herdman called it "ugly," it was all part of his tournament preparation strategy.
"We set this match. We could have gone for a European team with a nice zone system, but we said, 'Let's throw the cat among the pigeons and put them up against man-markers,' and that was tough today," Herdman said. "If we get out of this group stage, there's a chance of playing two African teams, and we're not used to that. You don't train like that, and you don't play like that in your clubs. When that comes up, with two centre backs and a sweeper, you have to know how to play against it, and we wanted to make sure they got that experience so it doesn't become a hijack in the actual tournament."
Herdman played an extended roster Monday, and the match had more than the usual stops and starts for substitutions and mini-breaks for instruction. While he raved about his team's spirits and confidence ahead of a once-in-a-lifetime home tournament of this scale, he said none of the players impressed him in the match. By the coach's blunt assessment, his team played just 15 good minutes out of the 90.
"They'll be frustrated today and that's what we hope for – that they come out frustrated knowing that they have to face this type of adversity," said Herdman, who spent much of the game watching from up high in a sideline mini-crane. "There will be an inquest, they'll talk about, 'If that happens again, what are we going to do differently?' They'll know they can't give the ball away on every second bloody pass."
Forward Jonelle Filigno played just briefly, with a mask on to protect two black eyes after recently taking a ball to the face.
Backs Rhian Wilkinson and Marie-Ève Nault both sat out with minor soreness, so the team had to scramble to fill in the right back spot.
Midfielder Diana Matheson continues to rehab an injured foot that could see the 15-year veteran miss the entire group stage of the World Cup. The Canadians, who open that group stage on June 6 in Edmonton versus China, later face New Zealand and the Netherlands.
Canada's final pretournament test is a friendly versus England at Hamilton's Tim Hortons Field May 29.
The English have had the edge in their past four meetings; the Canadian women haven't beaten England since the 2011 Cyprus Cup.
It's been a wild turnaround for a squad that went winless in the 2011 Women's World Cup, mustering just a single goal en route to a first-round elimination, but then brilliantly captured a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics.
The players have been training together for months in Vancouver, followed by a short training camps in Los Angeles and Cancun, before arriving to a big welcome at Toronto's Pearson Airport late last week.
Despite his disappointment with their play against Nigeria, Herdman promised a completely different performance from his players in Friday's friendly, noting the English will play the more predictable zone system used by the majority of teams in the Women's World Cup.
"They're in a great space – the energy and the environment are outstanding," Herdman said of his squad. "The girls are more connected than I've ever seen."