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Canadian women's soccer team looking for success in Cyprus

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Canadian women's soccer coach John Herdman will be thinking more about style-building than team-building when his squad competes in the upcoming Cyprus Cup.

Personal matters, injuries, and educational commitments have left Herdman with what he calls a "disjointed" lineup for the March 5-12 tournament in the Mediterranean island nation.

"It's a good test for the girls," Herdman said Wednesday on a conference call from Cyprus. "We know there are going to be quite a few European teams in the (2015) Women's World Cup. We have to make sure that this team are ready to play against that particular style that they bring."

In the group stage of the eight-team affair, Canada will take on Finland in Lanarca on March 5, Italy in the same city March 7 and England in Nicosia on March 10.

England beat Canada 1-0 in the 2013 final and the Canadians lost 2-0 to France in the 2012 championship game.

Herdman, who guided Canada to an Olympic bronze medal in 2012, began a post-Olympic youth movement in 2013. But he will field a predominantly veteran lineup, which includes captain Christine Sinclair, midfielders Diana Matheson, defender Sophie Schmidt and goalkeepers Erin McLeod and Katrin LeBlanc in Cypress.

Defenders Robyn Gayle and Rachel Quon and forward Nkem Ezurike are among players in the 20-member squad who will be vying for their first minutes at the senior national level.

Herdman is looking to further refine a simple ball-possession style of game that, he says, will be critical to success against the globe's top teams. But he also wants his club to be able to adjust as necessary to each opponent in advance of the World Cup that Canada will host.

"That's how you win tournaments, being able to adapt to the different conditions of opposition and having more than one playing model and style of play," said Herdman. "We've moved through a learning phase last year. The learning phase was also about finding players — about finding other players outside of the core, i.e. from the Olympics — as well as introducing the DNA of what we call control, which is simple possession-based style where we can control the ball in the opposition half.

"This year, we're in an improve phase. We need to learn to improve, and improvement means that we have to increase our stats another and win with the style of play that we are bringing and, in fact playing."

It's all part of Herdman's goal to leave a "legacy" that includes a World Cup crown and a distinct Canadian style of play that moves away from a traditional "direct style and a transitional style."

The coach wants his club to be able to dictate its playing agenda against opponents that are rated in the second tier internationally. Herdman believes the Cyprus Cup opponents will enable Canada to play more creatively instead of constantly reacting to the opposition.

"Going into Cyprus is a blessing in disguise in some ways, because we get to practise certain things and hone certain skills that you just don't get away with when you play against the U.S., who are 90 minutes (of) high press," he said. "Everything's high pressure. You can't settle on the ball and, if you're trying to set up a platform, you have to literally play it as you see it."

By playing with more of a control mindset, the coach suggested, the Canadian squad, can reduce fatigue and avoid injuries. But Herdman, who has indicated in the past that Canada has become a target for countries trying to improve, still expects to face determined opponents.

"They're good on the counter attack," he said. "They defend very well. They're now managed physically as well as us. Previously, I think Canada always had a physical edge on other teams. But these teams have developed better athletes, brought better athletes to their programs, and now we're seeing pace and power all over the pitch."

Missing players include two-time Olympian Jonelle Filigno, who is dealing with a death in the family, and World Cup and Olympic striker Melissa Tancredi, who has been working on her chiropractic studies in the past year.

Veteran striker Josee Belanger, who returned to the team last fall after missing more than two years with an ankle injury, will also suit up in Cyprus. Herdman said Belanger and young Quebec prospects are a good fit with the attacking style that he wants the club to play.

NOTES: Herdman said former star Kara Lang, who suffered another knee injury while attempting to come out of premature retirement forced by an earlier one, continues to go through rehab and her chances of coming back to the team will be assessed after she recovers from surgery. … Herdman said Soccer Canada was unsuccessful in lobbying efforts designed to get an invitation to this year's Algarve Cup in Portugal, which features some of the world's top clubs. He said the CSA probably rues the day it opted not to return to the Algarve Cup after last playing there in 2008.

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