Priestman's first big challenge is to get Canada prepared for next summer's Olympics
Bev Priestman doesn’t start her new job for another few days, but she is champing at the bit to kick things off.
“I’m thrilled. I can’t wait to get started. You know what it’s like when you move into a new job. Immediately you want to get cracking,” she told TSN.
Priestman was named the new head coach of Canada’s national women’s soccer team on Wednesday. She replaces Kenneth Heiner-Møller, who announced his departure in June and officially left for his new position with the Danish Football Federation at the end of August.
Priestman is already well versed with the Canadian program. She spent five years with Canada Soccer from 2013 to 2018 as the director of Canada’s EXCEL program, as well as the head coach of the women’s under-15, under-17 and under-20 teams. She also served as an assistant under then-head coach John Herdman with the senior team, and was part of the squad that won bronze in Rio 2016.
Most recently, she returned to her native England to be an assistant coach under Phil Neville for England’s national women’s team. At last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, she helped guide the Lionesses to a fourth-place finish.
“When I came to England to take up that role, I was very clear that I was coming to help me be a No. 1,” she said. “I spent two years working with senior players, and I did that on purpose. I was clear: I just want to be really good with that, with the view to be a senior head coach.
“The decision for me was really simple. It’s like a second home. I got married in Canada. I’ve got a little boy who was born in Canada. And obviously I know all the players and staff, so it does feel like a nice reunion, to be honest.”
As Priestman prepares for her new role, we take a look at three of her biggest priorities as Canada’s new bench boss in the coming months.
REUNITING THE TEAM
The Canadian players haven’t been together since March, when they finished third in the Tournoi de France. Obviously, restrictions surrounding COVID-19 have been the main reason behind keeping the team apart, but in recent weeks several European countries have held camps and played competitive games in Euro qualifiers, while other top 10 teams around the world have participated in friendlies.
At this point, Priestman said she isn’t sure when she’ll be able to get the group together. There were plans for a Canadian camp to be held in England this month, but this was dropped on the advice of health experts.
“Obviously, in this COVID world, the situation is fluid,” Priestman said. “The teams that survive and potentially do well in the Olympics are potentially those that have adapted. We’re going to have to be fluid and we’re going to have to adapt.”
But reuniting the team goes beyond physically being together. The squad was on a slide before the COVID-19 hiatus. With the exception of Olympic qualifying earlier this year, where Canada mostly faced opponents ranked far beneath their current status of eighth in the world, the team had just one win in seven matches, which came against 23rd-ranked New Zealand in November.
Before that win, Canada had lost four straight by a combined score of 11-1, including the defeat by Sweden in the Round of 16 that gave the team an early exit at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. At the aforementioned Tournoi de France, Canada finished third out of four teams, losing to France, and drawing with the Netherlands and Brazil.
Priestman will be charged with getting Canada out of its slump and reigniting the team’s core identity.
“For me personally, what I can say is when people watch Canada, you’ve seen a team that gives everything on the pitch,” said Priestman.
“On the pitch I would ask the players to be brave. If we give the ball away 10 times, go and show the 11th and do something really brave with or without the ball, you know, body on the line. I want to dominate with and without the ball. I think the physical capability - and for me that was a big difference coming to England versus Canada - I think we’ve got a major strength in terms of athleticism. So I think that domination both physically and with and without the ball is massive.”
Also on the horizon for Priestman will be difficult roster decisions and how she can best serve the team with a mixture of the veterans and youth. As the former head coach of Canada’s youth teams, Priestman is well acquainted with young talent like 19-year-old Jordyn Huitema and 22-year-old Jessie Fleming, who are both now playing professionally in Europe.
“Getting that blend of experience and youth will be really really important,” Priestman said. “The success in Rio was testament to that. But I think I understand the group of players that are in there, that are trying to break into that starting 11. I understand them, I know what makes them tick…. I’ve absolutely seen the senior players’ strengths as well. They’ll be crucial in the next nine months to get this team where they need to be.”
In order to serve the youth and the future of the team, that may mean a reduced role for some of Canada’s veterans. Stephanie Labbé has been Canada’s undisputed No. 1 goalkeeper since 2016, and has been a fixture on the squad since 2008. However, Kailen Sheridan has been tearing it up in the NWSL over the past few years. Last year, the 25-year-old finished as a finalist for the league’s goalkeeper of the year, and this past summer she won the Golden Glove at the NWSL Challenge Cup. Many believe that now is the time to give Sheridan the reins in Canada’s net.
Similarly, Canada has relied on the experience and steadiness of veteran midfielders Sophie Schmidt, Diana Matheson and Desiree Scott – who have a combined 562 caps for Canada – but this has meant a lack of playing time for the likes of Gabby Carle, Julia Grosso and Quinn, who have amassed 100 appearances for their country.
Then, of course, there’s Christine Sinclair. The Canadian captain is an undisputed legend and, at 37, shows no signs of slowing down. Just last month she was the leading scorer in the NWSL Fall Series with six goals in four games. In 2019, she was Canada’s leading scorer with six goals for her country, and earlier this year she became the all-time time leader of international goals with 186. It’s hard to argue that Sinclair should take a backseat when she is still producing at such a high level, but keeping Sinclair on the pitch often means that Huitema is on the bench, potentially hurting the young star’s development on the international stage. These are the kinds of tough questions that Priestman must face.
“What I need to do is keep things really simple, so working with the group on understanding what we believe our biggest strengths are on the pitch, and how we do that – put the right people on the pitch at the right time,” said Priestman.
“As a head coach, you can’t be everything to everyone,” she added. “What I have learned is I can’t be everywhere and everything, and I think I’ve got to trust and rely on the professionals around me so that when I do have an impact, it’s felt more from the players.”
Of course, Priestman’s first big test as Canada’s head coach comes in just nine months with the postponed Tokyo Olympics in 2021. The team has won back-to-back bronze medals and is the only country to reach the podium in both 2012 and 2016.
“Short-term goal is to be on that podium,” said Priestman. “We definitely need to change the colour of the medal. I think two bronze is unbelievable, it’s a fantastic achievement. I think to keep moving forward, we have to aim higher than that.”
Priestman is facing a tough turnaround to get the team ready for a major tournament in just nine months. Canada Soccer’s original plan was to hire a new head coach over the summer, so Heiner-Møller could spend some time with his successor and get him/her oriented with the team before the Dane left his post at the end of August. When this didn’t happen, Canada was left without a head coach for almost two months before Priestman was announced.
One of Priestman’s mentors, Herdman, faced a similar hurdle when he took over from Carolina Morace in 2011. The team was in limbo after a last-place finish at the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup. It was up to Herdman to bring the squad together in a short period of time for the 2012 London Olympics. Canada went on to win bronze, the country’s first medal in a traditional team sport at the Summer Games since 1936.
But while Herdman was an outsider, joining the Canadian program after a stint as head coach of New Zealand’s women’s team, Priestman is already familiar with the Canadian program and knows many of the core players and staff.
“My benefit is that I understand the landscape, I understand the country. In many ways, I understand the people I’ll be working with,” she said. “That benefit helps you get started quickly, which I think we have to do.”