Canada's John Herdman is getting a sense of what his counterparts with men's national teams go through on a regular basis.
As his senior women's national team prepares for what he rightly describes as being a "pinnacle event" on Sunday at BMO Field, he's dealing with the pluses and minuses of working with players coming off the demands of a club team schedule, and waiting for FIFA clearance that will allow U.S.-born starlet Rachel Quon to play for Canada.
Quon's clearance won't come in time for Sunday's soldout match against the United States. But she's worth waiting for. She's a 22-year-old, left-sided fullback capable of attacking, on a team that has several key players pushing 30 ahead of being the host side in the women's 2015 World Cup.
But Herdman, whose team won the bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics with a 1-0 win over France, is now running the program against the backdrop of the new National Women's Soccer League, a professional circuit that has given early signs of establishing a foot-hold in North America.
Sunday's match is against the team that beat Canada 4-3 in extra time at Old Trafford during the Olympics. It was a disputed game that cost Canada a shot at a gold medal and in which captain Christine Sinclair scored three goals and received a four-match, post-Olympics ban for allegedly abusing Norwegian referee Christina Pedersen, after the referee called Canadian keeper Erin McLeod in the 80th minute for holding the ball longer than six seconds. A handball on Canada's Marie-Eve Nault on the resulting free kick led to a tying goal by the United States on Abby Wambach's penalty. It was fitting that Wambach scored, since the Canadians believe her counting off second by second bullied Pedersen, who was over her head from the start of the match, into a seldom-made decision against McLeod.
"The exciting thing is the players look sharp," said Herdman, whose team has been working out at Toronto FC's training facility in Downsview in preparation for Sunday. "But like with any league: some teams are on top, some are on the bottom, some players are getting regular time, others are not. Some are thriving, some aren't ... I imagine it's the stuff every national men's coach has to worry about, though. On balance, it's a plus."
So, too, will be the eventual inclusion of Quon, a native of Los Angeles who has played for the U.S. under-20 and under-23 team and whose father was born in Rosetown, Sask.
Quon attended Stanford and as a senior in 2012 was a finalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy, given annually to the best men's and women's college soccer player in the United States. She impressed Herdman with her ability to hold a regular place in the Chicago Red Stars lineup, despite the fact she's a rookie.
He was more impressed when Quon's Red Stars teammates, Erin McLeod and Carmelina Moscato, told him she had Canadian roots.
"I told her she was Canadian from the get-go," McLeod said, chuckling.
Canada's men's program has punched below its weight for 30 years, however, while the women became an entire country's big sisters and daughters during the Olympics. More girls play soccer in Canada than any other sport, but the development system has been askew for so many years – Herdman says there was a disproportionate amount of money spent on the national team compared to the development system – that there is a dearth of talent in the 18-27 age group.
"We need to bridge the gap," Herdman said. "We'll recruit from anywhere we can."
This is all fair under FIFA's rules. Indeed, throughout history even powerhouse sides have utilized family ties or residency of players born elsewhere to buttress what might be considered the home-grown portion of their rosters.
This has worked heavily against Canada on the men's side – Bosnia-Herzegovina and Stoke City keeper Asmir Begovic played for Canada's under-20 side; Jonathan de Guzman of Swansea City and the Netherlands grew up in Toronto; Junior Hoilett of Brampton hasn't decided among Jamaica, England or Canada despite years of courtship and cajoling; and Calgary's Owen Hargreaves most famously stiffed the Canadian men's team for England. A little turnabout is nice, no?
Quon, who was advised by her college coaches to pursue the Canadian option, watched the Olympics on TV and had an inkling of how big a deal the Canadian women had become.
"But then I saw a bunch of young boys out at the TFC facility one day and they were all after Christine Sinclair's autograph," Quon said. "That showed me how important this team has become to this country. You want to be part of something like that."
Welcome to Canada, Rachel. And if you know anybody else similarly-minded with similar citizenship papers? Bring them along next time.