I believe it was John Molinaro who broke it, but as soon as it was broken the news rushed through Canadian soccer like water through a breached dam. John Herdman, the most accomplished coach any Canadian team has ever had in any sport other than hockey, is out of the Canadian women’s senior national soccer team… and in for the Canadian men’s senior national soccer team. Octavio Zambrano, after nine months as men’s coach, a Gold Cup quarterfinal that was relatively a success and objectively a failure, and enough enemies in Canadian soccer that every dialed-in media person in the country was saying “well that part wasn’t a surprise” before the ink on the tweets was dry, is out.
This is the most surprising thing that has ever happened. Not just to us fans, though we’ve spent several hours of our Monday evening trying to get our heads around the news. Our players seem just as taken aback. Stephanie Labbé, the starting goalkeeper for the women’s team for almost a year now, kicked things off with:
— Stephanie Labbé (@stephlabbe1) January 9, 2018
Diana Matheson, one of our best ever players and possibly still a member of the national pool if she ever recovers from her latest knee injury, had this to say:
Just sad about this one. Wishing John nothing the best in his next challenge, but still just sad.
— Diana Matheson (@dmatheson8) January 9, 2018
And, while all teammates are equal, we know in our hearts that some teammates are more equal than others, so take a moment to realize that Christine Sinclair, the best player in women’s soccer history, used her first Tweet since November to give every indication of having found out about this through the press release:
Speechless right now….
— Christine Sinclair (@sincy12) January 9, 2018
This was handled abysmally. A good rule for the Canadian women’s national team is the “is this going to make Christine Sinclair speechless” test, and this failed1. The new women’s coach, Kenneth Heiner-Møller, was already a first team assistant as well as the former boss of Denmark. He is a familiar face and, professionally, no joke. From the perspective of keeping the women onside he’s probably the safest appointment this side of telling Sinclair “sorry, this happened suddenly and we had to get it out before Sportsnet did, we didn’t have time to ask if you wanted to player/coach.” But my God this is going to be a hard one to swallow for a team that, as of January 7, 2018, was one of the five favourites for the 2019 Women’s World Cup.
In the interests of equity I looked through some Canadian men’s national teamers’ Twitter accounts for their reactions. Scott Arfield, Milan Borjan, Junior Hoilett, Nik Ledgerwood, Atiba Hutchinson, Anthony Jackson-Hamel, Samuel Piette, none of them seemed to be bothered. They surely have thoughts and reactions, but aren’t exactly rushing to their cellphones2. Which makes sense. The men’s national team is only a very small part of a player’s life. Julian de Guzman recently retired as the Canadian men’s national team’s all-time appearance leader with 89 senior caps. This would not be anywhere near the women’s leaders: Christine Sinclair has 262 and counting. Women’s players, by various means, almost always get most of their income and exposure through the national team. For men’s players the national team has, if anything, been an impediment except at the best of times.
Which is bad news for John Herdman. Herdman has done some very good things in the conventional coaching arena. His players are consistently fit, which was not always the case under Carolina Morace or Even Pellerud. He is responsible for a couple brilliant innovations, such as the Ashley Lawrence Fullback Experiment, and a bevy of young players who stepped right into the first team and looked like established parts of his tactics. But his greatest strength has always been forging a team that would run through brick walls for each other. That is not a skill that translates to the international men’s game. Training camps are short and infrequent, and you never have the same team for two in a row: player A prefers his club commitments, player B is unattached and trying to find work, player C would love to come but it’s not a FIFA window and he’d have a 19-hour flight with seven connections between Oslo and Fort Lauderdale and his coach told him that if he tries he’ll be training with the junior handball team. And it’s hard to become devoted to your soccer family when half the times you play somebody ranked north of El Salvador you get your ass kicked. It’s also hard for a male Ashley Lawrence to become a world-class fullback when he’s trying to learn with 360 minutes of MNT soccer every year, 180 of which are against countries you forgot were countries. And while Herdman’s tactical history is good, he can get stuck in his ways and has never looked like a Football Manager-style genius who is going to turn an awful team into a great one.
Herdman’s team-building will be an asset for, even if he can’t get the full 99 friendship, he can at least avoid some of Octavio Zambrano’s more flagrant pratfalls—provided he can connect with young men who are only with him because they couldn’t make Portugal and earn $500,000 a year in the same way he can communicate with young women committed to their country doing it for an ordinary middle-class salary. His history with youth players is also positive in the MNT context, and of course he knows how to deal with Canada Soccer and Canada Soccer knows how to deal with them. He and youth development supremo Jason de Vos have a mutual admiration society that can only be beneficial. I would go so far as to say that Herdman will not be any worse than Zambrano, or Benito Floro, or Stephen Hart, or Dale Mitchell, or any of the other coaches who underachieved and did things wrong and left in disgrace. But probably not any better.
Molinaro’s Sportsnet article implies, and Duane Rollins outright says, that he would otherwise have taken the vacant England women’s job; he was certainly being pursued by the FA. While my preference would have been for the Canadian Soccer Association to write Herdman the biggest cheque the bank would cash for him to stay at the WNT, if Herdman was out of the women’s team regardless this may have been the least bad option. Even giving them the benefit of the doubt, the transition was handled incompetently: if they couldn’t give Herdman a signed contract promising him the MNT in 2020 if he guided the WNT through the World Cup and the Olympics, they could have at least sacked Zambrano today and pushed the Herdman announcement back long enough for all the women to be informed3. This is 1990s CSA stuff, and if it pushes Sinclair twelve months closer to retiring in disgust it’ll hurt us as badly as the actual coaching change did.
Yet even in the best-case scenario, Herdman being “promoted” from the excellent WNT to the abysmal MNT will quite fairly feel like an insult. Many Canadian soccer fans, including me, like the WNT either as much as the MNT or a bit more, because they’re nicer and win a lot. The women get higher attendances (against, admittedly, superior opposition) and have a stronger national fanbase. Objectively, on a national level in 2018, the Canadian women are a bigger deal than the Canadian men. However, John Herdman is not Canadian, he is English. The English women, though quite good, are not a bigger deal than the English men. Herdman’s gaze is not consumed by the maple leaf. World-wide being a good men’s coach is a much bigger deal, with much more fame and enormously more pay, than being the best women’s to ever live. Like any of us he wants to rise to the top of his profession, which is “soccer manager.” Not “women’s soccer manager.” And that would mean coaching men.
I quite understand Herdman’s logic. If he wants fame and fortune outside this humble dominion this is the greatest opportunity he will ever have. There’s been talk that Herdman wanted to coach men going back to after the London Olympics, but I don’t think he imagined he would be thrown straight into the shark-infested waters of a reasonably serious, if lousy, senior men’s national team like it was an entry-level job. Yet he is also forfeiting the best chance he will ever have, barring miracles at CanMNT that lead him to Real Madrid or something, to win silverware: the 2019 Women’s World Cup and 2020 Olympics with the best team in Canadian women’s soccer history.
Soccer coaches have flipped genders at the professional club level, with mixed success. Harry Sinkgraven will be the name best-known to Canadians: the former SC Heerenveen women’s boss went on to briefly coach the FC Emmen men, disastrously, before joining FC Edmonton and accumulating a legacy of failure. Prior to her Canada days Morace coached A.S. Viterbese Castrense, then of the Italian men’s Serie C1, and French legend Corinne Diacre had a respectable spell with Clermont Foot of the French Ligue 2. Hong Kong’s Chan Yuen-ting led powerhouse Eastern Sports Club to the first division title in 2015–16. But all three were all-time great players in their own countries. Morace and Diacre went back to women’s soccer in the end, and anyway none were coaching men at a level anywhere as high as even the Canadian men4. To my knowledge Herdman’s path, from no playing career to speak of to elite women’s coaching to elite men’s coaching, is absolutely unique.
You can’t blame him for trying. You can’t blame the Canadian Soccer Association for resorting to this if it keeps him. The players are shocked but if it works out they’ll be fine, and this is not the fragile group of 2011. The great thing about a team of friends is that they don’t actually need a coach to keep them together; perhaps they will discover the magic was in them all along. And yet this whole affair feels distinctly shabby, in the way only Canadian soccer can.