Finding an outsider to replace Heiner-Møller is vital to CanWNT’s future

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics being pushed back until next summer, forcing fans to wait more than a year to see the top athletes in women’s soccer compete at the highest level.

The postponement also had an interesting side effect in terms of the Canadian women’s team, as coach Kenneth Heiner-Møller recently announced his decision to step down from his post in August in order to accept a job with the Danish Football Association.

Heiner-Møller’s departure leaves the women’s team in a bit of lurch ahead of the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics, forcing Canadian soccer’s governing body to find his replacement with the clock ticking.

Of course, Canada Soccer has been in this situation before. In the aftermath of the Canadian team’s last-place showing at the 2011 FIFA World Cup in Germany, Carolina Morace quit as coach, and Canada Soccer was left scrambling to find a new bench boss ahead of the 2012 London Olympics.

The hiring of John Herdman, who later took charge of the men’s side, proved to be an astute appointment. With less than a year to prepare his side for the Olympics, Herdman ended up guiding Canada to a bronze medal in London – a feat his Canadian side duplicated four years later at the Rio Games.

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But Canada is in a much different place now than it was when Herdman replaced Morace.

Nine years ago, Christine Sinclair was in her prime, and coming into her own as Canada’s captain and the main source of the team’s goals. Midfielders Diana Matheson and Sophie Schmidt had their best years ahead of them.

Today, Sinclair still remains the reference point in attack for Canada, but she’ll be 38 when the Tokyo Olympics roll around. Matheson is 37 and Schmidt is 31 and, like Sinclair, they remain automatic starters for Canada when healthy, blocking the pathway of younger players into the starting 11.

Under Heiner-Møller, Canada sported a winning record of 20-5-10 and sat eighth in the FIFA world rankings at the time of his announcement that he was leaving. However, a closer examination of the Dane’s tenure in charge shows that little, if any, progress was made.

A disappointing round-of-16 exit at last year’s World Cup in France was followed by yet another Canadian loss to the United States in the finals of the recent Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament. Canada was the exact sum of its parts under Heiner-Møller, never able to reach the next level of being able to beat the elite teams in the women’s game.

It’s been said so many times since Heiner-Møller succeeded Herdman in 2018, but the time has come to move on from Canada’s aging core of veterans and to start building the team around its promising group of young prospects.

Heiner-Møller was hesitant to do that, and appeared satisfied with maintaining the status quo – not a major surprise, considering he served as Herdman’s assistant before taking over from him, and that he already had a working relationship with many of the players. This is still very much Sinclair’s team, but eventually the torch has to be passed to the younger generation. At some point, this has to become a team led by Jordyn Huitema and the team’s other promising youngsters.

That’s why the next 14 months are shaping up to be one of the most important periods in the history of the Canadian women’s team. The hiring of Heiner-Møller’s successor will be absolutely vital to moving the women’s program forward, and it’s a decision that Canada Soccer has to get right.

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So, who would be the ideal candidate?

Former national team standout Rhian Wilkinson has been suggested. She already serves as coach of the Canadian U-20 and U-17 teams, and she guided Canada to a fourth-place finish at the 2018 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Uruguay. She also earned 181 caps for Canada during her national team career, and played with many of the current members of the senior team.

But that’s the last thing Canada needs – another person tied to the Herdman era. Hiring a former national team member who played with and is friends with so many current Canadian players is a recipe for disaster.

Now more than ever, the Canadian head coaching role requires complete objectivity; someone with a fresh pair of eyes who can be ruthless in their assessments of players, and make the tough but necessary changes. The new coach can’t be bound by past relationships or have any connections to the current crop of national team members or to Herdman, even with all the success the team enjoyed under the Englishman.

The slate has to be wiped clean, and that’s why an outsider is needed – not a candidate from within the Canadian soccer community, but someone with a proven track record of success in the international game who can put their immediate stamp on this team.

If money is no object, then Canada Soccer could do much worse than hiring Jill Ellis, the former U.S. national team coach who guided the Stars and Stripes to World Cup titles in 2015 and 2019. Currently unemployed, Ellis is very much her own woman, and a manger who inspires her players and manages to get the most out of them. Now more than ever, that’s what the Canadian women’s team needs after the lacklustre Heiner-Møller era.

Canada Soccer struck gold when they picked an outsider in John Herdman nine years ago, as the women’s program benefited greatly because of it. A similar hire is required this time around.