Morace key to rebirth of Canadian team

Since taking over the coaching reins, Italian Carolina Morace has turned around the Canadian women's soccer team, earning the universal respect of her players.

Italian coach credited with turning program around since taking over in 2009

Carolina Morace has served as coach of the Canadian women's team since 2009. (Neil Davidson/Canadian Press)

How much do members of the Canadian women's soccer team love coach Carolina Morace?

So much so that they voted unanimously to go on strike in support of the embattled Italian when she threatened to quit her post after this summer's FIFA Women's World Cup in Germany.

The players later backed off after Canadian Soccer Association officials flew to Rome in February and met with the coach. The CSA and the coach eventually settled their differences, leading Morace to change her mind and agree to stay on through the 2012 London Olympics.

The players' public display of loyalty was a gesture that touched Morace, a 47-year-old native of Venice.

"Of course to have the respect of the players it gratifies me a lot. At the same time, they have to understand that they represent Canada, they represent a country. They don't just represent a little team — they represent all Canadians," Morace told CBC Sports.

One of the reasons why the players have so much respect for Morace is because she played the game at the highest level.

Morace debuted for Italy's national team in 1978 and went on to score 105 goals in 153 games for her country. She played in the first ever FIFA Women's World Cup in 1991 in China, scoring four goals before Italy was knocked out in the quarter-finals.

But it's the work Morace has done since taking over the Canadian coaching reins that has won universal praise from her players.

For years, Canada was regarded as one of the top sides in the women's game, but it regressed when it bowed out in the first round of the 2007 FIFA Women's World Cup and could not advance beyond the quarter-finals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Morace's arrival in early 2009 marked a distinct tactical switch for the Canadian women's team. Previous coach Even Pellerud preached a one-dimensional style of play that emphasized the long ball, physical strength and endurance. Under Morace, the Canadian team is playing a more stylish, technical and possession brand of soccer.

The results speak for themselves. Canada won the CONCACAF championship last November, the team is playing its best soccer in years, and the players are headed to Germany with their confidence at an all-time high.

"I honestly have to give so much credit to Carolina," said defender Emily Zurrer. "She's a tactical genius and she brought in a whole new mentality and bringing a style to a team where we didn't have that many tools in our tool box as we do now.

"We have so much respect and belief in her system and her knowledge of the game and I think that's really been the main factor why we're doing so well."

Goalkeeper Erin McLeod concurs.

"I've been on this team for ten years and the feeling that I have every time I step onto the field under Carolina Morace is different than in the past. Every time we step onto the field now we expect to win, or we expect to give the team a fight. I can honestly say that that hasn't always been the case," stated McLeod.

A change in playing style is only half the story behind the Canadian renaissance. Morace has also changed the team's training methodology, and demanded her players be faster and more physically fit.

Captain Christine Sinclair, in particular, has benefited from the changes in training regime. Not exactly a slow player under Pellerud, the star forward has dropped weight and picked up an extra touch of speed since Morace took over as coach.

"She's completely changed our whole team - how we see the game, how we prepare, everything from how we train to how we eat, how we watch the game," opined Sinclair. "She's changed us from just pure athletes to soccer players, and brought in the tactical genius that she has. 

"We've never felt more prepared heading into every single game, we know that she's given us all the tools that we need to succeed, and that's something we haven't had in the past."

Moarce has also challenged her players.

As a teenager, Diana Matheson made her debut for the Canadian women's side in 2003 and was used primarily as a defensive midfielder by Pellerud, charged with doing the team's dirty work on the field.

But under Morace, Matheson has become one of Canada's more creative players, given the freedom by the Italian to follow her attacking instincts. Freed from the shackles of Pellerud's rigid tactics, Matheson, now 27, is enjoying her soccer more than any other time in her career, and for that she credits Morace.

Her only regret is that she didn't meet the Italian sooner.

"When I first made the team with Even I was a very defensive player and my role on the team was to win balls and play the ball back to [teammates]," Matheson explained. "Now with Carolina I have a lot more freedom, as well on the ball, and distributing the ball around the field and also going forward more and attacking.

"I think if Carolina had been around seven or eight years ago I probably wouldn't have been able to do that role because I was a much-less developed player. But I think the years with the national team have really paid off and now that Carolina's here I get to attack and enjoy this style of play."

Another thing Morace has done is shown a willingness to give young players more opportunities to prove themselves. Case in point: Kaylyn Kyle, a midfield bulwark who will be a key player for Canada in Germany.

Kyle earned only a handful of caps under Pellerud, but she has fought off injury problems and flourished under Morace. Now the 22-year-old native of Saskatoon, Sask., is a regular starter.

"She's very smart and willing to work with young players because once being a player herself she knows that once you get older you retire and the younger generation comes in and fills those roles," said Kyle.

"She's very smart that way, where she is taking younger players into training camps, giving them opportunities and getting them into games just to give them experience. They may not be ready but she's giving them that experience to know what it takes to be an international player and what you need to do."

Having played at the World Cup, Morace is now looking forward to coaching at one - and she's especially proud to be able to do it as coach of a country she loves and admires.

 "I'm proud to be coach of this team and I'm proud to represent this country. For us Italians, Canada is a country that is a beautiful country … and a peaceful country, so I 'm proud to be coach of Canada," Morace said.