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The black hole of Canadian men's soccer

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Wednesday, January 10, 2018 – Page B13

This week, Canada Soccer demoted John Herdman from coach of the national women's team to head of the entire men's program.

I'm sure he got a raise. His international platform will have expanded slightly, as will his prestige in the game.

But, upfront at least, this is a step backward. Herdman's exchanging one of the most promising national setups in world soccer for a program that has somehow run afoul of an entire family of witch doctors.

The curse on men's soccer in this country has been in effect for three decades, and shows no signs of being lifted.

Unable to attract managers of real stature, Canada Soccer has, in the past few years, been reduced to basing their hiring decisions on three questions: Is the prospective coach foreign?

Is he cheap? And is he so out of touch that he thinks this is a good idea?

"Sir, is that a yes to all three?

Then congratulations. You are the next coach of Canada! If we could just get you to sign on ... sorry, what's that? You didn't mean to apply for this job? You came to the wrong building? Well, never mind about that. We like to trust our instincts at Canada Soccer.

And you were the only person who applied. How's the team doing right now? Um, well, let's just get you locked into an office and we'll tell you on the phone."

The latest to be pushed out a window of the team bus long after went off a cliff is Ecuadorean Octavio Zambrano. The name certainly has a soccer-y ring to it. That was about the only thing he contributed.

Like his predecessors, Zambrano leaves angry. The system was set against him, no one understood his plan, etc., etc. He's promised to reveal all at a later date. It's almost as if the poor man believes someone would care.

Herdman is not Zambrano's natural successor. Rather, he's the only coach worth a damn who'd want the job. He's also one of the only people who will have some clue as to what he's gotten himself into.

Herdman, 42, came to Canada from England via New Zealand almost seven years ago, at a time when the women's program was in masculine-style disarray. They'd just finished last at a World Cup.

Deploying roughly the same personnel, Herdman refloated that sinking ship. A few years on, it's a battle cruiser. The Canadian women are ranked fifth in the world, have nearly completed a successful transition from one talented generation to one even more talented coming up behind, and look like favourites for the 2019 World Cup and the 2020 Olympics.

In some quarters, the suggestion has been made that Herdman is abandoning the women's team, as if they all lived together in a beach house and had adventures.

Seven years is an age in international soccer and these paternalistic assumptions would not be made about someone leaving one men's team for another.

He's handing a successful franchise off to a trusted lieutenant who knows it well and has given him plenty of time (17 months) to transition before the next World Cup. That's as happy a parting as there can be at this level.

Nor can it be said that this is some sort of professional upgrade. Not in Canada, at least.

Herdman will have the sense to know that the likeliest way this ends is in frustration. Presumably, that's the challenge that drew him to it.

The question now is whether Herdman's Svengali-esque style will work in the men's game, with its larger stage, field of competition and egos.

As coaches go, he has always been a bit of an oddball. He is a therapist rather than a tactician, and more of a peer than an authority figure. If you were to describe his approach in a Hollywood pitch, it would be, "Lao Tzu leaves mountain top; opens high-performance gym."

A charismatic man, he exerts an enormous amount of influence over his players' lives, controlling every aspect of their development.

He has in the past spoken in training terms of "themes," "mindsets," "structures," "progression pathways" and "momentum graphs."

Who knows what it all means, but it has seemed to work.

A particular example of this approach is Herdman's "brain room" - a place where players are hooked up to a never-quiteexplained set of machines to have their mental processes evaluated.

Ahead of a game at the last World Cup, Herdman was asked if he was feeling his nerves.

"I'm nervous about every game I play, to be honest. I try not to show it," Herdman said.

"That's the sort of work we do in the brain room. Just to make sure my brain's in the right space."

Well, okay then.

Led by Christine Sinclair, the women's national team bought fully into this unusual method.

It will be a harder sell to the men, most of whom will feel they have already got this soccer thing figured out.

The two senior national teams do practice the same sport, but that's the only similarity between the groups. The veteran women's players are enormously close knit. They've played and occasionally lived together since they were teenagers. As a result, their main loyalty is to each other, country and club - in that order. That weave has been tightened by success.

The men's team is a much looser aggregation. They see each other seldom, come together only sporadically and most often to lose. Their primary focus is on their day jobs.

Beaten down by decades of disappointment, ignored in their own country, routinely run down by the national media, there hasn't been much reason for them to change their minds.

They've been broken by failure.

That disconnect, rather than a lack of talent, is the key reason one team works, while the other is such a mess.

Can Herdman fix it?

Not easily, not quickly and probably not at all. The edifice of men's soccer in this country is built on sand. He will need years just to dig out the foundation, and it's unclear if his experience has provided him with the right tools.

But if anyone has earned the chance to try, it's Herdman.

Associated Graphic

John Herdman greets fans prior to a Women's World Cup match against England at BC Place in 2015. Herdman refloated the sinking ship that was Canadian women's soccer, Cathal Kelly writes.


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