Some news stories are like defective Magic Eye posters — no matter how long you stare, the scattershot elements never quite coalesce into something that makes complete sense.
John Herdman becoming manager of Canada’s men’s national team, an out-of-left-field announcement that shattered the Canadian soccer sphere into pieces on Monday night, is one such story. And just like that defective poster, the optics here are bad for everyone.
Given that things evidently soured between the higher-ups at Canada Soccer and former manager Octavio Zambrano within just months of his hiring last March, one wonders how he was ever chosen as Benito Floro’s successor in the first place.
Now, if federation and manager were truly never going to see eye-to-eye, perhaps some credit is due to the CSA for resisting the sunk cost trap, and making the move when they did. But given that most fans associate Zambrano (pictured below) with the exciting style Canada showcased at last summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, while associating the governing body with corrosive inner politicking, Canada Soccer is hardly going to win this PR battle, regardless of what the behind-the-scenes reality may be.
The federation took another public-relations L with its simultaneous announcement of Herdman as Zambrano’s replacement, a move that was perhaps unavoidably construed as a case of robbing Peter (or perhaps, Patricia) to pay Paul.
But it turns out, as reported by Sportsnet’s John Molinaro, Herdman himself was the catalyst for the move, as a means of pursuing his interest in coaching on the men’s side of the sport.
It’s definitely unfair to attribute to Herdman some of the more regressive undertones of such a move — most notably, the idea that women’s soccer is a mere stepping stone to the men’s game. But it’s also unfair, and perhaps damaging, for members of a tight-knit national team to suffer the disruption of a coaching change just nine months before the 2019 Women’s World Cup qualification tournament.
That World Cup and the 2020 Olympics were set to be the culmination of Herdman’s decade-long journey to rebuild the women’s national team, a project with which he’s had massive success both on and off the field. His work in identifying, nurturing and deploying talent has put the women’s national team program in such good stead that, even without his presence behind the bench, they will likely be contenders at both tournaments.
Surely, the prospect of such long-term thinking paying similar dividends for the men’s national team was appealing to the decision-makers at the CSA, particularly in light of potential co-hosting duties at the senior men’s World Cup in 2026.
Maybe the idea of ridding themselves of Zambrano while also giving Herdman a reason to stay in Canada beyond 2020 felt like killing two birds with one stone. And sure, if this all pays off in the long run, the ruffled feathers will have been worth it.
But foremost among the pressing questions attached to this dramatic and unprecedented move is, how do we know Herdman’s skills and success with the women’s national team will carry over to the men’s national team?
The answer is: we don’t.
Should this all play out in the best possible way, and Herdman resuscitates the Canadian men the way he did with the Canadian women back in 2011, he will rightly be lauded as one of the greatest sporting geniuses the country has ever known.
But what will become of the women’s team following his abrupt departure? And what if we end up in the darkest Canadian soccer timeline, where the women’s team flounders without Herdman, while the men flounder with him?
The picture, right now, is extremely unclear, no matter how hard you squint. No doubt 2018 is set to be an extremely eye-opening year for Canadian soccer.