TORONTO — It’s not Mt. Everest, John Herdman says, but the Olympics might be K2.
This time last year Canada’s head coach sat at base camp preparing to climb one of soccer’s highest peaks — the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
The fact that last summer’s tournament was staged on Canadian soil unearthed pressures that won’t be replicated at this summer’s Olympics.
As a result, preparation for Rio de Janeiro has been different in so many ways, beginning with outside influences — family, friends, media — that have diminished ahead of these Games.
“The World Cup is like climbing Everest,” Herdman explained ahead of Canada’s upcoming friendly against Brazil on Saturday at Toronto’s BMO Field.
“When you deal with a home event … you realize you’re climbing the biggest in terms of how you have to prepare the team for the scrutiny, the consequences.”
Looking back, Canada’s World Cup preparation was so vigorous, so tight-knit it was almost cult-like in its appearance. Herdman’s squad was akin to a club team more than anything.
“We wanted to make sure we were an organized and disciplined tactically,” Herdman reminisced. “We never thought we would out-technical the Brazilians or the French (at the World Cup).
“But we thought we could out-organize them and be more adaptable on the pitch. The focus was to get as many sessions in together. In 2016, we planned to put the players back into their professional leagues for longer.”
Following back-to-back friendlies in Toronto and Ottawa, Canada’s women will continue seeking minutes at their respective clubs.
Herdman believes instilling a winning mentality is more important than bringing them together well in advance of another overseas Olympics — especially given the emotional tools that were developed last summer.
“That’s a big difference — the social, emotional and mental piece,” Herdman said in comparing a “home” World Cup to an Olympics. “It’s a completely different animal.”
Along with a completely different set of players. Herdman was brutally honest on Monday in addressing notable absences throughout his pre-Olympic training roster.
Due to injury, retirement or form, 11 players who were on Canada’s World Cup roster were left at home.
“We’ve been building towards this team in 2016 and achieving back-to-back podiums,” Herdman said. “Players who have been part of the journey have had to move aside because younger players have come through with other qualities we needed to add.
“We’re at that point now where the roster changes will be few and far between and (any changes) will be more about injury as opposed to performances.”
The risk of injury to Canada’s Olympians is elevated due to Canada’s decentralized approach. But it’s a risk Herdman is comfortable with considering the benefits he hopes will emerge.
Part of the reason Canada staged lengthy camps ahead of last summer’s World Cup was to keep aging players healthy. This summer’s player pool has an average age of just 24.65.
“The pros of bringing them together late is the game-readiness and the mental readiness of fighting for your club’s shirt and competing every single week,” Herdman said. “There’s also an appreciation. I feel when we hold our group together for too long they almost don’t appreciate what they’ve got in front of them.”
Two months out from Olympic competition, Canada hosts Brazil on Saturday before facing the South Americans three days later in Ottawa.
Christine Sinclair’s (Achilles tendonitis) condition is of principle concern as Herdman ponders whether to limit her workload before she returns to the Portland Thorns.
“It’s a process where hopefully she’ll come into camp … and we can get Christine through some of the games,” Herdman said. “At the same time, we’ll keep an eye on the fact she has to get back and perform for Portland as well.”
Following next week’s exhibition, Canada has a final Olympic tune-up against France in Auxerre on July 29.
From there, they’ll head to Sao Paulo, where they’ll open Group F at this summer’s Games against Australia (Aug. 3), followed by Zimbabwe (Aug. 6) and Germany in Brasilia on Aug. 9.