Canadian soccer women set to defend Cypress Cup title

Canadian women's soccer team head coach John Herdman, whose team begins defence of its Cyprus Women's Cup title against Scotland on Tuesday in Lanarca, is asking his players to step up their game less than six months out from the 2012 London Olympics.
Coach John Herdman, far right, wants his team to devellp a "gold-medal skin" for the London Olympics. (Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

The honeymoon phase is over for John Herdman and Canada's women's soccer team.

The Canadian head coach, whose team begins defence of its Cyprus Women's Cup title against Scotland on Tuesday in Lanarca, is asking his players to step up their game less than six months out from the 2012 London Olympics.

Canada secured a spot in London with its second-place finish at the CONCACAF championships last month in Vancouver, but the tournament shone a spotlight on some of the team's weaknesses.

"We highlighted that if we want to win a gold medal, there are a lot of things that need to change," Herdman said. "We have to develop what we call our 'gold-medal skin' and that means people can't be the same players they were in that tournament. They have to be better."

Herdman was hired in September to succeed Carolina Morace, who resigned after Canada's disastrous performance at the World Cup in Germany.

Under Herdman, Canada claimed its first Pan American Games gold medal in October, and defeated Mexico in January in the CONCACAF qualifying tournament semifinal to book its ticket to London.

But the coach said issues with fitness forced him to carefully manage minutes in Vancouver.

"There was some major challenges when I took the team over in October, flagged it quite clearly that the team wasn't at the international standards to go on and compete at the highest levels," Herdman said.

There wasn't time, Herdman said, between taking over the team in October and Olympic qualifying to work much on the players' physical status — the focus was on getting to know the players, getting over the disappointment of the World Cup, and tinkering with different lineups.

Now it's time to get down to serious work.

"And the players are buying into that," Herdman said. "We've set some parameters around the type of energy we want to see on a daily basis…

"Players have dug deep, they've looked at what they think it's going to take individually to stand on a podium and they're starting to look to commit to: one, the energy that's required, and two, the specifics around that, the type of tactical and mental and physical things that they're going to have to work on."

While Herdman rotated players through his roster by necessity in Vancouver, he hopes to start cementing a starting 11 from the Cyprus tournament.

"So we can really start trying to build that chemistry between a group of players who will play more regularly together," the coach said. "Performance will really dictate who starts and hopefully some players will start keeping hold of a shirt."

The seventh-ranked Canadians have traditionally fared well in Cyprus, making the tournament final every year, and winning it in 2008, 2010 and last year. Their all-time record is 13-1-1.

After playing No. 22 Scotland, The Canadians face 11th-ranked Italy on Thursday and meet No. 14 Netherlands on Sunday to wrap up Group B round-robin action. Group A has England (No. 8), Finland (20), France (6), and Switzerland (25), while Group C has New Zealand (24), Ireland (54), South Africa (66) and South Korea (9).

No. 6 France is the top-ranked team in the tournament.

The Cyprus Cup butts heads with the Algarve Cup in Portugal. Four of world's top five women's teams — U.S., Germany, Japan, and Sweden — are all playing in Portugal, which also begins this week.

Herdman relishes the chance to have his team play in a tournament environment in the leadup to London.

"It gives the team another opportunity straight off the back of the [Olympic] qualifier to try and build momentum in the tournament and growth through the tournament, get the right balance of games for people."

They'll play in one more tournament in Switzerland in July before heading to the Summer Games.