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Soccer Herdman: Young talent boosting Canada’s World Cup team

If there is such a thing as a magic formula for winning the World Cup, our research has shown that you usually need a team with an average age of 27 and 800-plus games of national team experience across the squad.

We had that in London for the 2012 Olympics, but when we projected this year's roster, we had an average age of 29.5. A Women's World Cup has never been won with a roster that old, and of course, as athletes get older, there's a higher risk of injury and they can't work with the same kinds of training loads.

It quickly became apparent that we had to turn this program around – it was almost at a natural point to start a transition. But you can't undergo a full-scale overhaul when you're just a few years away from playing host to the World Cup. You have to be smarter and do it slowly.

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When we looked at our program three years ago, we saw a paucity of players between the ages of 23 and 26. But what we saw further down the age spectrum, in the 14 to 22 group, was startling. Many of these players were already technically at the same standard as our senior women's team members. And physically, some of them were showing great aerobic capacity, speed and power. Not many countries in the world would go and recruit five players from that age group and put them in their senior team in the build-up to a home World Cup, but we had to. We had no choice.

So while we've got 15 returning players from the London squad on our 23-person World Cup roster, we've added the likes of Adriana Leon, 22, Jonelle Filigno, 24, and two 19-year-olds, Ashley Lawrence and Kadeisha Buchanan.

Is it right or fair that 17-year-old Jessie Fleming, the youngest player in our squad, gets to carry the weight of her country at this World Cup? Not really, but you ask her and she's loving it. She was just 15 when she first put on the shirt to play against Germany in December 2013.

These additions actually bring our average age closer to the ideal numbers, but when you look at the actual makeup of the squad, it's probably a false average age, if you can say that.

Canada is not alone in embracing a youth movement. Injuries forced the Germans to win the women's European championship two years ago with the youngest team they'd ever put out. The team they beat 1-0 in that final, Norway, had a pair of 18-year-olds, Caroline Graham Hansen and Ada Hegerberg, starting up front, and they were arguably their team's best players.

I've been able to use anecdotes like that to show the senior players that going the youth route is not going to hurt our chances of success as long as we embrace the young players coming through, and the veterans have done that.

Being around the senior players can only help their development as well. Can you imagine as a 15-year-old coming to live and train with the likes of Christine Sinclair, Erin McLeod, Robyn Gayle, Diana Matheson and Desiree Scott for months on end? You hear about Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000-hour rule, but we know that research is flawed because you can get the same result in about 4,000 hours if you're in the right environment. So for a player such as Fleming, her acceleration as a human being, as a soccer player, as a high-performance athlete, will be going through the roof.

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Internally we've done a few things to speed the process of getting everyone acquainted with each other, like mixing up the rooming assignments just so the youngsters get to see the veterans as human beings.

We paired Fleming and Sinclair together in one room and Jessie didn't say a word for about two days. It turned out that she used to have a Sinclair poster on her wall when she was younger, and she must have been completely awestruck. But then she sees that Sinclair actually goes to bed every night like the rest of us, eats food and watches TV and is, in fact, a normal person, despite her 153 goals at international level.

That's what I love about this environment. There's a real authenticity about the people here and why they're here.

Then they've got that experience of playing together, and as a coach I'm putting my trust in players when I'm starting Fleming, Buchanan or Lawrence in games, and big games as well. The senior players have absolutely had to rely on those kids to come through, and once they're in the starting 11 and senior players know that these kids are playing, it all changes.

They realize that these young players are not kids any more; they're now their teammates, and the veterans are going to live and die by their performances in the World Cup.

John Herdman is head coach of the Canadian women's national soccer team. This is the second of a five-part series on Canada's preparations as host country of the Women's World Cup.

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