SPORTS

Canadian women's soccer team shifts gears in World Cup preparations

12/07/2014 10:38 EST | Updated 02/06/2015 05:59 EST
OTTAWA - The Canadian women's soccer team could be headed to China early next year, making the Four Nations Tournament the next stop on its pre-World Cup trail.

That means an early date with the Chinese, whom they will meet on the opening day of the Women's World Cup next June in Edmonton.

"I'm not sure whether I'm going to be able to put my team out and use the tactics I would (normally) use, but who knows," Canadian coach John Herdman said with a grin. "I might play a 3-5-2 format or something a bit different."

With Saturday's draw marking six months to the opening kickoff, the games are ramping up on and off the pitch for the 24 World Cup teams.

Herdman says Canada has been moving from "that improve and learn and develop phase into a (aim to) perfect phase."

"Which means the results start to matter," he said. "This close to an event you have to stop being development-focused, now it's a win focus."

That includes increasing competition within the squad. Only 23 of the current wider pool of 30 players will make the World Cup squad. And the year after, only 18 will go to the Olympics.

"So it's about the consistency in their performances now when they get opportunities, as well as every day in training," Herdman said. "I guess the scrutiny and the expectations have gone up over the last month and some players have really responded to that."

The eighth-ranked Canadians defeated (1-0) and tied (1-1) No. 5 Sweden last month, capping a demanding year that saw Herdman's team play Japan, Germany, the U.S. and England among others. Canada finished 2014 with a 4-5-2 record.

"It's part of the plan," Herdman said of the marquee fixture list. "We said the first two years of the cycle we would ease our way through the opposition as we were preparing, bringing new players in for experience, trying new structures and styles.

"And then as we start to close in towards the World Cup, we wanted to make sure that we got some real tough tests to figure out what our gaps are."

If you include a game against Brazil last December, Canada has played six of the top seven teams in the world rankings over the last year. Its record against that opposition was 1-5-3, meaning there is still work to do even if three of the losses were by one goal.

"We know we have to beat these teams if you're going to win a World Cup," Herdman said. "And you end up playing these teams pretty much in back-to-back games.

"We're not too far away. I wouldn't say we're overconfident yet or even confident. We've just been ticking the boxes slowly and I think we're starting to measure up in some areas. But there's definitely some gaps in our attacking play and we're going to keep working on that."

Opposing teams know all about Christine Sinclair and the 31-year-old Canadian skipper attracts plenty of attention these days. Canada needs more attacking options to allow Sinclair space to operate.

There are also a few questions on the backline in terms of starters.

Herdman expects to play some 13 games in 2015 before the World Cup kickoff. Some will come in the form of tournaments, like the Four Nations Tournaments and the Cyprus Cup, to give the Canadian women a taste of hotels, buses and stadiums as well as games and recovery.

The Canadian team has left little to chance ahead of the World Cup, playing in tournament venues in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Montreal to familiarize themselves with hotels and venues.

The Canadian players are checked, physically and mentally.

"We look at cognitive expenditure," said Herdman. "We actually measure that on a daily basis in our environment. The load that we put on players cognitively.

"Everyone understands the physical loading. But we brought some mental experts around the team that are able to measure that, to ensure that our players can remain fresh because ultimately it all happens up in the brain. And I think being in a home (tournament) environment is always going to be an opportunity and a curse."

To that end, marketing and communications departments were involved before high-profile games against the top-ranked Americans in Winnipeg in May and Toronto in June 2013 to give players and staff a sense of what is required around big matches.

After hosting the 2011 World Cup, German coach Silvia Neid's advice to Herdman was not to underestimate the commitment on the players at a home championship.

"Internally everyone's aware of this and it's really important we get our strategies right," Herdman said. "We've got a great team behind the team so I think everything will be in a good space because we're doing the preparation."

That's good because time is fast running out.

Sitting on the podium next to Sinclair at the pre-draw news conference Friday, Herdman said he felt goose bumps.

"It felt real, really felt real," he said.

Expectations will be high for the host country after winning Olympic bronze in 2012, despite the fact that Canada's record at five previous World Cups is a combined 4-11-3. The 2011 squad, despite being ranked sixth in the world, finished dead last after floundering in a tough opening group.

Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter

MORE:cpSports