Q&A with Canada women’s national soccer team coach John Herdman

In 2012, John Herdman coached Canada's women's soccer team to the country's first medal in a traditional Summer Olympics team sport since 1936. (Jon Super/AP file photo)

TORONTO - Maybe it's because a long winter has finally given way to a splendid spring north of the border. Or maybe it's because Canada's teams in this year's Stanley Cup playoffs were sent to the golf course weeks ago.

Whatever the reason, soccer has seized a big share of the spotlight up here this week. On Wednesday, the Montréal Impact won a thrilling Voyageurs Cup final over the Vancouver Whitecaps, clinching a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League. The game was broadcast on national TV, and it made headlines in newspapers from coast to coast. 

Now the buzz is building at BMO Field ahead of Sunday's showdown between the U.S. women's national team and Canada (4:30 p.m., ESPNews). It's the first time that the two neighbors have met since their epic semifinal clash at last summer's Olympics, and it's being hyped as a chance for Canada to get revenge for that thrilling 4-3 U.S. win at Old Trafford. 

Of course, Sunday's game is just a friendly. But there's a definite sense of it being more than that. It's another chance for Canada to try to prove that it can get one over on its southern neighbor, which hasn't happened much over the years. The U.S. is 44-3-5 all-time against Canada, including 5-0-1 north of the border. Canada hasn't beaten the U.S. since 2001. 

The big-game billing for this weekend has led both teams to bring in many of their big stars. But U.S. coach Tom Sermanni and Canada coach John Herdman have also started to mix in a new generation of young players. Now is the time for both teams to start looking towards the 2015 Women's World Cup, which Canada will host. 

This past Thursday, Canada held an open practice at BMO Field. After the session ended, Herdman spoke with reporters about his goals for the weekend. He also talked at length about what has made the U.S. so dominant, and what Canada has to do to reach that level. I found that discussion quite interesting.

Here are some highlights from Herdman's remarks.

Even though this game is a friendly, how big a game is it for you?

It's our first game since the Olympics in Canada, and it's in Toronto in front of a sold-out crowd. Man, you've just seen what these girls mean to this country. And if this energy doesn't drive you to find another level of performance, I don't know what will.

It's going to be tough for the girls, I think. We're not used to this - when we go and play internationally, when we go and play in the Olympics, you maybe get a couple hundred Canadians turning up. We didn't see any of this.

So turning up on Sunday, it's going to be interesting to see how we cope. We're putting little strategies in place to try and learn about how you deal with this sort of stuff. It will be a great learning experience - and a hell of a test. The U.S. are 35 games unbeaten. We've got a tough record against them. So I just hope these fans bring it. That might push us over the line.

How big is this rivalry for women's soccer in general?

I think prior to the Olympics, it was a quiet rivalry. I think the Olympics really kicked it off, and I think that's great. Normally, everyone would have said that Canada are the underdogs against the U.S. - well, on paper.

Fifty-odd games: 45 losses, five wins, three draws. We are the underdogs, but there's something about what happened at the Olympics that makes it seem a lot closer. So we'll use that, and we'll use whatever the fans give us to push it over the line.

It's a derby match. You're just over the border. These girls love the rivalry. We've talked about it this week. But what's motivating them is just putting a personal best performance in. Because with the U.S., they're a tough team to beat, and everyone's going to have to be at their best. Fingers crossed that they are.

Does it seem like that semifinal at the Olympics was a long time ago, or does it seem like the time has gone by quickly since then?

It seems like just yesterday. We get reminded every time we bump into people in airports. People won't leave it alone - it's unreal. We put a little bit of footage on [the Internet] and people were in tears. The emotion was very raw when we came back into camp. Yeah, it hurts, it still hurts a bit.

But those moments, those decisions, that game - they connected the country. And I'm sure that if it hadn't gone that way, we wouldn't have the same support that we have now. If we had went on to win the gold medal, it wouldn't have been the same as winning the bronze, the way things happened.

Seeing how quickly BMO Field sold out for this game, are you surprised at how well the team has remained in the public conscience?

I think them not being in the consciousness, not fully out there all the time, means that people have hung on to it. But I think people resonated with this group of girls. There's something really special about them. They're normal people, they're basic, they live for the game. They love their country, they love the fans.

They're not here for money. They're not here for all those other reasons. I think people can resonate with that. I think people can go, "I want to actually go and help this group."

So we're going to need some help [ahead of] 2015. I think this test, in front of a home crowd - you know, all I'd say is be patient with us. The girls are going to experience something they're not used to. For some of them, they'll fly, and others of them will sink a little bit. I hope we just learn a lot from this weekend.

Does it feel like this game is the start of the countdown to 2015, or does it feel like it's on its own?

Absolutely, I think [it does]. We had nine games of development in the build-up to this. We put a lot of focus on giving people opportunities, trying some new people, trying a new formation - changing the mindset of our playing strategy.

But this is our pinnacle event, and we've prepared like it's a pinnacle event. Because the pressure is here, the expectation, the scrutiny, the consequences. We can feel it. There's a sense in the environment that this is what it's going to be like in 2015. If we don't get to grips with it now, or start to... yeah.

And that pressure's new for some of these players.

Yeah. For most of these players, this pressure of the expectations Canada has now got for this team - they've elevated them up from just normal people to some people seeing them as their heroes. You imagine holding that on your shoulders, stepping out here this weekend - it's new.

So we're trying to deal with it. We've brought some mental trainers in and we're trying to just get this concept [out] that it's all about your personal best. What Canada fell in love with was a performance. We got beat by the U.S. but people still loved the team.

It's about how many times we can produce a performance like that, which was more about being a great Canadian than it was about being a great football player. That's what we're striving to achieve.

Do you see a different level of fitness from your players because many of them have been playing in the National Women's Soccer League for the last few months?

There are ups and downs with that, pros and cons. I'm not used to the players coming in from pro leagues where they've just played so many games. Some of them are carrying injuries, some of them have started every game, some of them haven't been getting game time.

So you've got this mixed bag of energy and emotion, and that's new. Usually I've had them in residency, and that's been easy. You maybe get [just] one or two who join you.

We've brought a mental trainer in who's been working in the NHL and the NBA, who's used to working with professional athletes in these sorts of situations. She's starting to help us understand the challenges that these players now have to face. It's exciting, but it's interesting.

That sounds like a good problem to have, in a way?

Well, it is a great problem, because the mindset is the most important thing when you're preparing winners. They have to go out and win every week.

They didn't have that in the build-up to the Olympics - it was a nice, cozy training environment. And if you didn't play well in training, some of these players were guaranteed their shirts the next day. In these pro environments, they have to go out and fight for their shirts.

I think for the Canadians, it will build a bit of a tougher, ruthless mindset - a more professional mindset. I think at times, that has been missing. You look at [Abby] Wambach in that semi-final game: she was making sure that she was not going to lose that game.

I think for Canada, that's the little gap that we've been missing - the little bit of ruthlessness that I think the pro league [the NWSL] will bring.

People on both sides of the border would likely say that the U.S. has that mental aspect as one of its biggest strengths.

Yeah, they're unbelievable. They average three goals a game against us. We've had three wins in 20-odd years. They're unbeaten in 35 games, and they just keep going and going.

Even when we thought we had won the [Olympic semifinal] game, they just kept coming back. They're a phenomenal team, but I think this team can get there.

I think post-Olympics, we went from "Canada might" to "Canada can." What the Americans bring is "the U.S. will," and we've got to try and move [to] that. You need a special group of players to do that. I think this group is special, and hopefully the players we've brought in can connect.