Pragmatic Ferns won’t cower in the corner from US

The Football Ferns have a chance to show they can compete with the best when they face world No. 1 USA in St Louis on Friday. Steve Deane reports.

Their previous coach told them that if they tried to play constructive football against world class opposition, they’d lose 8-0.

It’s hard to imagine that thought doesn’t lurk somewhere in the back of the minds of the Football Ferns as they begin their build-up in earnest to the June 7 Fifa World Cup in France, with a clash against reigning world champions USA in St Louis on Friday (12pm NZT).

But the good news is that players such as returning defensive lynchpin Abby Erceg and goalkeeper Erin Nayler never really bought into the negativity of the mercifully short coaching era of Andreas Heraf in the first place.

"You can see how I couldn't stand to wear that fern on my chest any more when his vision was to cower in a corner and not get beat by too much,” Erceg famously stated following a 3-1 defeat in Japan last year, in which Heraf had defended the team’s negativity by stating they would never be able to compete with the game’s superpowers.

While the pall of gloom has lifted under new coach Tom Sermanni, the Ferns retain a degree of pragmatism when it comes to the task of facing giants like the current top-ranked team in the world.

“We still have to be really strong defensively,” says Nayler. “At times we will need to be a lot more defensive than attacking, especially in these games. But it is a lot more positive. The players all believe that we can create chances and we’ll be attacking a lot more.”

Nayler knows what it is like to cop a walloping at the hands of the Americans, having been part of the team that went down 4-0 just over four years ago at Cincinnati's Busch Stadium – the same venue for Friday’s match.

“They weren’t great memories. That was a game where we under-performed. I’d like to forget about that game," Nayler says. 

“Hopefully when we got out on [Friday] we can redeem ourselves – and I’m sure we will.”

Doubtless the Ferns will draw upon more positive recent experiences – namely the 1-0 victory over former World Cup winners and now 12th-ranked Norway last month.

That result came courtesy of a Rosie White goal in the third minute, followed by a resolute defensive display that limited the Norwegians to just one shot on target in the match.

“You take confidence from any win, especially against a top team,” says Erceg, who joined Nayler on a pre-match conference call with New Zealand media.

“The fact that we are able to hold on to a 1-0 result was really important. Those are the kind of games that we are going to have in the World Cup. We are not going to be scoring four, five, six goals and then passing the ball around at the back and wasting time.

“It is going to be really tough and there are going to be times where we have to fight out results, and we might have to hang on for a really long time.

“So the experience of that was really good. Getting players comfortable with winning and being in the lead was new for a lot of us. Going into a World Cup, that's critical. We need to learn how to win games if we are going to be successful in this World Cup.”

Friday’s match will certainly provide an important yardstick. To qualify from the group stage, the Ferns will likely need to get at least a draw against fifth-ranked Canada or eighth-ranked Netherlands, then smash lowly Cameroon.

Curiously, the Ferns encountered both the Canadians and Dutch in pool play in the last World Cup in Canada in 2015, drawing 0-0 with the hosts and losing 1-0 to the Netherlands. They failed to qualify for the knockout stages, however, following a 2-2 draw with China.

As captain of the North Carolina Courage in America’s National Women’s Soccer League, Erceg is extremely familiar with the threat posed by Friday’s foe.

Asked if the Ferns were wary of copping a “hammering” less than a month out from the World Cup, she said: “I don’t think anyone wants to get hammered any time to be fair. You want to win as many games as you can.

“[But] They are the top team for a reason. They are always going to be a tough game for us. Are we expecting a tough game? Yes. Are we going to do our best in terms of the performance? Yes. What that looks like I don’t know yet.”

Sermanni hasn’t yet revealed his line-up, which is expected to be affected by the late arrival in camp of several regular starters. Erceg described that situation as “par for the course”. The squad was, in fact, delighted to have such an extensive build-up for the World Cup – which also includes matches against Mexico behind closed doors in New York and matches against world No. 3 England, before a final hit out against Wales.

“A month [buildup] is pretty luxurious for us,” Erceg says. “We take it all in our stride. We all know we are doing our best to get ready for the World Cup.”

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