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Canada names Bev Priestman as new head coach

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Priestman may be looking to move Canada away from its more risk-averse Heiner-Moller era.

England v Argentina: Group D - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images

Canada Soccer announced today that they have found a new women’s national team head coach in Bev Priestman. Priestman is returning to Canada from England, where she spent a couple of years working in their youth system as the U18 head coach and an AC for the senior team under Phil Neville. Before that, Priestman was part of the Canadian system as director of their EXCEL youth program, head coach of multiple youth teams, and an AC under John Herdman, with whom she also worked in New Zealand. Priestman is replacing Kenneth Heiner-Møller, who was head coach from 2018 to 2020 and left to become the Head Coach of Education for the Danish Football Association. Priestman has a UEFA A license and is currently working towards her UEFA PRO license.

Priestman certainly has the qualifications for a head coach job - particularly in comparison to her former boss, Phil Neville, who came on as England head coach having had no experience in the women’s game nor much experience as a manager, men or women. On a conference call with media, Priestman called the job search a “thorough process,” saying she went through three rounds of interviews with various selection committees, including board members and former players, leading to her notification that she’d gotten the job within the last week or so. She’s also not unaware that coaching pathways aren’t always accessible to women, and said she believes strongly in women helping other women within the context of getting into coaching.

“I’d like to think I got this job because I’m the best candidate first and foremost,” she said, “But I think overall for young aspiring female coaches or players who are coming out of the game or want to get into coaching, I do think having a female role model in a coaching position in a country like Canada where women’s soccer is massive, I do think that’s important.”

“I think it’s beneficial,” she added. “It’s only going to help the growth of the women’s game. You’re going to see it more and more, and actually some of the more successful countries have been coached by women.”

Priestman was also aware that it’s a strange time to move into a new position, particularly one that requires a lot of international communication. She called the situation “fluid” as she and the Canada Soccer staff navigate around the logistical issues of COVID-19. For now, Priestman still has a base in Europe, meaning her access to the Canadians abroad is strongest. “I think the benefit of me being in Europe will I’ll be able to do some of that and have a coffee with some players in England as an example,” she said. That means players like Jessie Fleming at Chelsea, Shelina Zadorsky at Tottenham, and Jordyn Huitema and Ashley Lawrence at PSG. These are young players who are already on their way to forming the new core of the Canadian WNT, with older players like Christine Sinclair and Sophie Schmidt plying their trade closer to home in the NWSL. But more players spread across top international leagues means more Canadians getting diverse experience at the highest level, which Priestman counts as a big positive and something she wants to encourage. (She also dropped a note of encouragement for a pro women’s team in Canada. “I definitely think an NWSL sort of franchise and professional pathway would be fantastic for the future of Canadian soccer,” she said.)

Now it’s just a matter of adaptation, a word Priestman repeated several times.

“Teams that survive and potentially do well at Olympics are potentially those who’ve adapted and looked at the world a little bit differently,” she said.

Priestman also talked about her own personal adaptation, imposing her style, which she said she’s crystallized over the past two years or so in England, while respecting what’s already in place. Her existing familiarity with Canada will be a boost in getting her acclimated quickly, particularly for a short turnaround ahead of the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics. At the same time, Priestman wants her players getting more comfortable taking more risks. Heiner-Møller, for all that he tried to get Canada to play a more tactical game, also had them looking extremely risk-averse on the pitch, particularly during Olympic qualifiers earlier this year.

“On the pitch I would ask the players to be brave,” said Priestman. “If we give the ball away 10 times go and show the eleventh 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.”

When asked to elaborate on what bravery might mean for the culture of the WNT, Priestman said, “Some of the things as an example, to give you a tangible example, being in an Olympic games or a World Cup, sometimes the brave thing to do is not to train as an example. That would be how it might apply to maybe a support staff. But I think across the board, on the pitch off the pitch, I think we have to be brave, and teams that do great things and great players are brave. So it’s definitely something I’d like to thread throughout the group. But I look at the success that has happened in the program, it’s when they’ve been brave...I definitely think this group of of players when they’re at their best they’ve been brave. But tangibly on the pitch it’s little things like playing forward when it’s on to play forward rather than maybe the same sideways backwards.”

She added, “I think that’s all I’ve ever asked is a group who put on Canadian shirt is to do that. Be brave when you do it. And trust in yourselves and have that confidence.”

Priestman seems to have an idea of where to go internally; externally, the goal is obvious. “We definitely need to change the color of the medal,” she said. The Canada WNT has two Olympic bronzes, which Priestman acknowledge as a fantastic achievement. “But to keep moving forward we have to aim higher than that,” she said.