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Herdman’s national team swap an incredibly risky move for Canadian soccer

If it doesn’t work out, this move could hurt both national teams.

Canada v Germany Semi Final: Women's Football - Olympics: Day 11 Photo by Joern Pollex - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

Canada Soccer sure shuffled their deck last night. John Herdman has been announced as the new coach of the Canadian men’s national soccer team, replacing Octavio Zambrano, who was in change for less than a year.

Herdman’s vacant post with the women’s national team will be filled by assistant coach Kenneth Heiner-Møller. Bev Priestman, meanwhile, will become the National EXCEL coach as well as an assistant with the senior team.

It is a startling move that shakes up the entire program. Canada Soccer had better hope it has played its cards right, because it’s also an incredible risk for both the men’s and women’s national teams. If things go sideways, it could really do some damage.

More than anything, it reads as reactionary. Whether this was about keeping the sought-after Herdman in the system, or a falling-out with Zambrano, it appears to have come together rather quickly. It looks like a quick promotion, rather than a proper search.

Or a demotion, as several have been quick to joke on social media. There is no doubt that the men’s national team lags some ways behind the women in terms of deserved national reputation, a lot of that thanks to Herdman. This move threatens the women’s national team’s upward trajectory, though.

Canada v Switzerland: Round 16 - FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

For one, this news seemed to blindside the women’s national team. Solid reporting from Sportsnet’s John Molinaro uncovered the move before it was meant to be revealed. Social media reaction from the team indicated that, even if they did find out moments before the news was made official.

When the best player in Canadian soccer history, Christine Sinclair, takes to Twitter to say she is “speechless” about the move, that doesn’t bode well optically. It certainly can’t help the relationship between the players and the federation.

Heiner-Møller, Herdman’s replacement, is more than qualified for the role, having led the Denmark women’s team between 2006 and 2013. But he doesn’t have the same brand power, which makes it look like the men are being given priority.

Herdman’s national team swap also comes at a time when the women’s national team seemed ready to pick the fruits of his labour. The squad, filled with young and exciting players, go into the World Cup next summer as genuine contenders.

Maybe that’s why he left: the women’s national team had reached their potential and he wanted to undertake a new project.

Herdman undoubtedly deserves all kinds of praise for what he did with that team. He turned what was a broken group into back-to-back Olympic medallists. In the process, he helped to foster the development of young women throughout the country into future national team products.

Canada v Australia: Women's Football - Olympics: Day -2 Photo by Robert Cianflone - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

That’s what he will now try to replicate with the men’s national team. Would that it were so simple. The fact that he has no high level men’s coaching experience at all makes him a stunning hire.

The allure of his hire is the fact that Herdman has an understanding of Canadian soccer, and has found elusive success under its umbrella. He has also proven his ability to execute a vision with the women’s national team, something the men’s team has long needed.

But the challenges he will face as men’s national team coach will be entirely different. The men aren’t nearly as good as the 2011 women’s squad Herdman inherited who had crashed out of the World Cup. It also plays in a more competitive field.

Herdman has no experience in leading a team through the rigours of CONCACAF on the men’s side, nor dealing with the complicated recruitment process that has now become central to success in international football.

Meanwhile, Zambrano, the outgoing manager, had proven his worth in all of these categories. His successful run at the 2017 Gold Cup this summer was the most promising thing to come out of the program for at least a half a decade.

During that time he had the national team playing an exciting brand of football, which was facilitated by young players who represent the next generation of Canadian soccer. He looked to have given the program the stability that it needed, only for changes once again to be made.

Canada v Jamaica -  International Friendly match Photo by Anatoliy Cherkasov/NurPhoto via Getty Images

But behind the scenes there have been indications that things were not going as well as they seemed. At the very least, Zambrano and his superiors disagreed on the direction of the national team. Whatever the case, there is plenty of story here left to be unpacked.

Instead, Canada Soccer now sees Herdman as the manager who will help the team more in the long term. This is important now more than ever with the potential of a host spot at the 2026 World Cup.

If it works out, this was a smart move by the CSA to retain a brilliant soccer mind and use him elsewhere in the program. It could make Herdman one of the best coaches in Canadian sports history.

Toronto FC supporters shouldn’t soon forget a tale of Greg Vanney, a coach who seemed similarly unqualified. His fresh approach was able to overhaul a program that at the time mirrored Canada’s dysfunction.

However, if Herdman’s reign turns out to be the latest in a long line of failed experiments for the national team, the disaster within the program could be unmitigated. The CSA will have cut off its nose to spite the face, as both national teams will suffer the consequences.