10 Questions with Ian Bridge

Frank MacDonald talks with former Sounder and current Canadian women's national team coach, Ian Bridge.

He’s fondly remembered as the tall, slim towhead in a formidable Sounders back four from 1979-83. Ian Bridge is still recognized by fans when coming through Seattle, and if you keep your eyes peeled during the Olympic Games, you can see him on the Canadian women’s national team bench. He’s the top aide to Even Pellerud. Come Labor Day weekend, he’ll be playing alongside several former Sounders teammates in a tournament for over-40s in his hometown of Victoria, a side coached by Alan Hinton. But for now, he’s on the job in Beijing.

Canada took fourth in the 2003 World Cup and has now qualified for its first Olympics. What’s possible in Beijing?
We’ve set pretty high goals of being on the podium, to at least be in the medals. Of course, it’s not easy when you look at the caliber of the 12 teams in the Olympics. But with all players being healthy, peaking and a little bit of luck, we feel we can be on that podium.

As coach of youth national team in ’02, Canada finished second in the world. Has that group of players helped lift the senior national team program?
Probably close to half of the squad are players remaining from that 2002 squad that played the U19 World Cup final. In the 6-7 years since that tournament, the success of that team has been part of the success of the senior program. They had a very early experience playing big games in front of big crowds and being successful. So, it’s no big surprise that there’s a big chunk of that squad– people such as Christine Sinclair, Kara Lang, Erin McLeod, Candace Chapman, Clare Rustad, Brittany Timko, Robyn Gayle–coming through now with the Olympic team.

How did you come to coach in the women’s game?
It’s one of those simple coincidences. When I finished playing in Switzerland in 1990, I came back to Victoria and played in the old Canadian Soccer League. The coach was an old friend, Bruce Wilson, and he was also was coaching the men’s team at the University of Victoria. He asked if I would be interested in a job coaching the women at UVic. So in 1991 I started there. It was a bit of luck, in that an old teammate and colleague offered me the job, and I wound up coaching there 11 years. During that time I was invited into national team camps, which were fairly sparse back in those days. Some of the players now on the national team, like Christine Sinclair and Kara Lang, I’ve known them since they were 13-14. I was the assistant coach for Women’s World Cup in ‘99, and kept that role when Even came on board. It was one thing leading to another, and here I am.

Is Sinclair the next Charmaine Hooper for Canada?
For sure, she’s the most exciting and important player for us. If Sinclair’s not playing well, we don’t have a big scoring punch. Melissa Tancredi has come into her own in the last year or so. But Sinclair’s numbers–I think it’s 91 goals in 120 games–is a very similar strike ratio to Charmaine. They are different players in their personality and what they bring to the team, but Christine Sinclair is our most important player right now.

Canada has played the USA as tough as anyone this year. What are Canada’s strengths going into Beijing and what’s your assessment of the Americans?
Our strength is overall team play. We have had pretty close to the same bunch of players together for a long time, and we’re a very close team. It is very much a tight group. We don’t have standout players beyond Sinclair. Team attacking, team defense, team play and team spirit are huge strengths for us. The U.S., obviously, has a big amount of talent. Wambach made a big difference for their team. Not just goal scoring, but she is one of their best defenders. She chases back, win balls at defensive free kicks, etc. Having said that, I think the team will now find other weapons to use offensively. Wambach was a match-winner, but so is Carli Lloyd. They are deep in talent and have such a strong winning mentality. And I remember at last year’s Women's World Cup, when Germany lost their starting keeper, the No. 2 came in and they had zero goals against and won the tournament! Without Wambach, it’s not that the team can’t win a gold medal. But with her they can win anything.

Which teams are the safest bets for the medal round?
I would think Germany, Brazil, North Korea and the USA are, on paper, the strongest teams. But [the first] three of those are in same group. North Korea is very strong. Their U20s won the World Cup in Russia. They are a talented bunch and playing in Asia. Brazil has been up and down. In our group, Sweden is the highest ranked team in FIFA. You can’t discount China playing at home. They’ve played close to 40 times getting ready for this. If we can get through the group into the quarterfinal, we’ve got a shot. In the Olympics, once you get to the final eight, anything can happen. The game is becoming quite close between those top teams. If people get on a roll, avoid injuries or get lucky, it could be interesting.

Unlike the men’s game, college seems to serve the women’s game well. Will that change?
Not until you have a women’s that’s on a par with the top men’s league. You have young women ages 15-17 in a club system, where they are trained and play games at a high level. Right now, the NCAA provides that level in between high school and the international level. In Norway, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, England and France, you have system in place where youth players are brought through to senior clubs, but not with the depth of competition as on the men’s side. There are only three of four quality clubs in each of those countries, compared to 15-20 college teams that develop very good players.

International men’s soccer is more wide-open than ever. What about women’s international soccer?
On the men’s side, you still have 20-30 teams in the top echelon. In the women’s game, it’s been three of four teams at the top. But in the last couple years anybody in the top 10, on a given day, can compete with each other. The difference is the teams with special players–Marta with Brazil, (Birgit) Prinz with Germany, Wambach with the USA. Those players are superstars who can take a team to a gold medal. Prinz has done that, and those are the teams that have an edge. They have a little more pressure on them, but they also know how to deal with it as well.

As for your playing career, does the 1986 World Cup rate as the highlight?
The ‘86 World Cup was pretty historic and over years it’s become even more so. I felt back then that Canada qualifying would become a routine thing. It’s become very, very special because, up to now, we haven’t gone back. The 1994 Olympics were quite special, too, because we got to the quarterfinals and came within a couple penalty kicks from knocking off Brazil. And for me the 1980 season with the Sounders, when we went 25-7, was probably my highlight as a season. We won practically every game that year at the Kingdome. It was a great bunch of guys to play with and with Alan Hinton as the coach. As a 20-year-old player it was quite exciting because we were probably the biggest game in town at that time.

You were an Olympian in 1984. But the soccer tournament stretched from coast to coast. Were you able to experience the Olympic spirit, per se?
That’s true. We played at Annapolis and Harvard in group games, and then we played Brazil in Palo Alto, so we never had that ‘L.A. Olympics’ experience. It was still the Olympics and a great tournament for us, but it seemed more just like another international soccer tournament. I remember watching the Olympics on TV, but we didn’t have that experience of being in an athletes’ village. I think we’ll have more that kind of Olympic Games experience in Beijing.