Surging Canadian soccer women team face tough French side
'Got to make sure you don't mess things up,' says coach John Herdman
By Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press
Canadian soccer coach John Herdman usually leaves no stone unturned, working around the clock to prepare his team.
But he says his role ahead of Friday's Olympic quarter-final with third-ranked France is simple.
"Look, as a coach at this point, you've just got to make sure you don't mess things up," he told a sparsely attended news conference Thursday at Corinthians Arena.
"It really is. It's about not overcomplicating things. It's about simplifying but not being too simplistic with the tactics. And it's about trust, it's about trusting that. They're on a roll, they're in good form, they're in (a) good space."
With wins over No. 2 Germany, No. 5 Australia and No. 93 Zimbabwe, the 10th-ranked Canadian women come into the quarter-final on an unexpected high. These Games had been considered by many as coming too soon for this revamped blend of youth and experience to go deep.
Nine of Herdman's 18-woman roster were born in 1992 or later.
'They're at the start of their careers, really," Herdman said of his young talent. "So the next four to eight years, you look at these players hitting their tactical maturity. Wow. It could be a very good team."
Then he paused.
"Well, it is," he said with a laugh.
The recipe has worked to perfection, with the Canadians riding a wave of momentum. Canada is now two wins away from returning to the medal podium.
"We came here to hear an anthem," said Herdman. "And that's what we want to do."
The talented French, who beat No. 17 New Zealand and No. 24 Colombia but lost to the top-ranked Americans in pool play, could end that run, however.
The bookies favour Les Bleues. Ladbroke's has France at 3/4 to win, meaning a $100 bet could return $175, Canada is 15/4 with that $100 returning $475.
Herdman acknowledged that his team is still in its infancy.
"It's a cool group but we're only at the quarter-final stage," Herdman said.
"We put a plan together four years ago to peak at this moment. And it's like the plan is starting to come to fruition," he added. "But we're not there yet. And to get them into a final is going to be one hell of a push when you look at the age of the team — whether it's the extreme end of over-30s to the extreme end of the under-20s. I mean this is a team that was never meant to go to a podium."
The Canada-France winner will play either No. 2 Germany or No. 12 China in Belo Horizonte next Tuesday. The other semifinal in Rio de Janeiro will feature either the top-ranked Americans or No. 6 Sweden against No. 5 Australia or No. 8 Brazil.
Canada's all-time record against the French is 4-5-3 although it has only won once in the least eight meetings (1-4-3) dating back a decade. That win, courtesy of a Diana Matheson dagger in stoppage time, was for Olympic bronze four years ago.
Eight members of that 2012 French team remain on the roster. Six Canadians are back: Christine Sinclair, Rhian Wilkinson, Desiree Scott, Sophie Schmidt, Melissa Tancredi and Matheson.
So the two teams have history.
Herdman recalled how the French hosted Canada in a friendly eight months after the London loss. "And I'm sure it was to exorcise that demon," he said.
This time it was Kaylyn Kyle who scored as the clock wound down to give Canada a 1-1 tie. "And the (French) players were in tears in the pitch," he recalled.
"(But) this is a fresh French team," said Herdman, who believes the first goal may decide the game.
Under new coach Philippe Bergeroo, the French have won both meetings since then. Bergeroo said he has not been surprised by Canada's success in Brazil.
"We played against Canada not so long ago in a friendly game and we won 1-0 but it was a very tough game. We saw that Canada is a very nice team," he said through an interpreter.
FIFA.com also showed the Canadian women some love in a wrapup of preliminary-round play under the headline: "Canada Stand Out as Favourites March on."
Herdman, however, says that will be news to his team given it has sworn off reading the media at the Games.
"Our players have made a commitment to keep the bubble tight," he said. "All they've got is their own self-confidence and belief. We've been clear that once you start looking outside for affirmation and belief, then you're deteriorating your own confidence and self-belief."
The Canadian women have been using social media so that bubble may have a few holes.
While Herdman can control many things, he was rendered helpless by Sao Paulo's choking traffic. He arrived 45 minutes late for his news conference
NOTES: The French roster includes 12 players from Olympique Lyonnais, winner of the 2015-16 UEFA Women's Champions League ... Canadian defender Rebecca Quinn turned 21 Thursday ... Canada considers Sao Paulo its Olympic home, having already played two games here.