TORONTO — John Herdman will face his first test as Canadian men’s soccer coach against New Zealand on March 24 in Murcia, Spain.
While the fixture was arranged prior to Herdman’s Jan. 8 switch from running the Canadian women’s program to taking charge of the men, it seems fitting. The 42-year-old English native honed his coaching skills in New Zealand from 2002 to September 2011 when he took over the Canadian women’s program.
“It was an interesting surprise when I came into the job, that that would be the first match,” Herdman said in an interview Thursday.
There have been other surprises since taking over the Canadian men’s program after Octavio Zembrano’s short stint as coach.
Job 1 for Herdman has been a men’s national team high-performance review, talking to staff and players in trying to determine the program’s strengths as well as its gaps.
“It’s been a very eye-opening phase,” he said.
Herdman says he discovered there was no high-performance blueprint for the men’s senior team.
“In each of the (quadrennials) that I’ve been able to review, there isn’t a documented clear plan where everything aligns to an overarching goal and strategies, innovation plans, high-performance support and systems were in place. That’s been the most stark reveal out of either the conversations or the information that’s been put over my desk.
“It seems to have been put together ad hoc. This is a big part of what I’m hoping to change.”
His eye is clearly on the 2022 World Cup. “You’ve got to start with the end in mind,” he said.
He did acknowledge the work done before him in identifying young talent.
“The next three years is about solidifying the squad and then trying to build around the team spirit, the team chemistry, the tactical excellence.”
A longer-term goal will be to mesh the talent development path with the national team blueprint. He says currently there is a disconnect.
Also missing is an international best practices review, where Canadian Soccer Association officials visit other countries to see what they are doing that is working.
Herdman is clearly re-energized by the new job.
“Life’s in sixth gear,” he said with enthusiasm. “It’s where I wanted to be again in my career, with a big challenge and experiencing that feeling of pressure, feeling the expectations, the scrutiny, the consequence — that real pressure that I think brings the best out of people.
“Its been long days. I’m back in a mode that I felt I was in 2006 in New Zealand (when he started with the New Zealand Football Association) and 2012 in Canada where you’re rebuilding, you’re starting again in many ways.
“This stage of my career it feels right, now. This is what I wanted to feel like. You’re pushing yourself to the limit with your thinking, your planning — a little bit out of your comfort zone but not too far out that you can’t see an end in mind.”
Canada is currently ranked No. 95 in the world compared with No. 120 for New Zealand, which is between coaches since the departure of Anthony Hudson (now with the MLS Colorado Rapids).
The March match against New Zealand will be the first meeting between the two countries since Canada beat New Zealand 4-0 and 3-0 in Vancouver and Edmonton, respectively. Canada’s all-time record against the All Whites is 4-1-1.
“What you know about New Zealand is they’re a very gritty, hard-working team with a good pedigree,” Herdman said.
He has yet to settle on his coaching staff, but says he will surround himself with the “best people … that will raise the group up and also push my performances to another level.”
In 2018, Canada will participate in the new CONCACAF Nations League, a national team competition designed to maximize the match dates presented within the FIFA international calendar.
“Pretty much every game we play in CONCACAF is going to have an impact,” Herdman told a media conference call.
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