No games for 491 days: Inside New Zealand's 'unique' preparation for crunch USWNT Olympic clash

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The preparation that the U.S. women’s national team and New Zealand, their opponents on Saturday, had for this summer’s Olympic Games could not have been more different.

The USWNT went into the Games having played 12 matches this calendar year alone.

New Zealand, on the other hand, went 491 days without a single fixture.

The Football Ferns did manage to secure one warm-up game before the event began, against Great Britain on July 14, but they still did not have their full squad in training at that point.

“In March last year, it wasn't a case of, 'Oh, we won't be getting together for the next 16 months'. It happened in stages,” head coach Tom Sermanni tells Goal, reflecting on the ramifications of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The other thing that impacted us was just the spread of our players and the restrictions in New Zealand and Australia, because we've players there, and the challenges that brought for players and staff.

"It put us in a fairly unique position compared to all the other major football playing countries.”

Sermanni himself, who lives in Australia, could not get into New Zealand until April of this year, meaning he spent 14 months outside of the country he coaches.

Unable to organise a friendly, with it proving “impossible” to get a side together, the players instead tried team bonding video calls, but with the squad spread across the entire world, that also was problematic.

“What we did was, our team psychologist kept in touch, so he was probably more important than me, because you can talk a lot of football stuff but until you actually get your team together, things don't really come together,” Sermanni explains.

“He did a lot of stuff with individual players, leadership groups and, at times, the whole squad. We stressed to the players that the support systems were all there for them so if they needed a strength and conditioning person, analysts, our well-being person, any kind of resources they needed, that was there for them.

“What you tend to find with players, when they're playing, things are going okay and everything's ticking along. They're just quite happy getting on with their life. It's generally when something happens, whether they're out of favour at a club, they need to look for another club, that we're there to help them. It's more in those situations we made ourselves available.”

Meanwhile, with several Ferns playing in Australia’s W-League, Sermanni headed to as many games as possible to watch those players live and keep in contact with them.

Players based in New Zealand were also put into men’s or boys’ programmes, and there were games organised with senior players and the young and upcoming talents in the Football Ferns development programme.

It was not until June that a proper camp, of some degree, could be held. It featured a “conglomerate of various players”, including, once their quarantine periods had been served, some of those based in Europe whose seasons had ended.

“We did some heat stuff, strength and conditioning stuff, we played games against boys, that kind of thing,” Sermanni explains. “Given what we had, we did the best we could under the circumstances, but that still doesn't replicate getting a squad together for a big block of time, or replicate international matches.”

It has only been in Japan that the squad has finally come together as one. To make up for lost time, Sermanni says he has been trying to “keep things as simple as possible”. Given the complicated build-up his team has had, it is no surprise.

Off the pitch, meanwhile, it is about ensuring the harmony of the team is right.

“In some other teams, you can have lots of conflicting stuff going on and it really doesn't impact it too much because firstly, it's kind of the culture, but secondly, they're at that stage in their team development that they can do that,” the coach adds. “With us, the team element and the culture element are critical parts of our performance.”

Players and staff have been giving presentations about themselves as part of that, which have been incredibly varied. Sermanni picks an “outrageous rap song” from one of the staff as one of his highlights, as well as some of the more personal and emotional efforts.

“One of the young girls that made the team, her dad died of a heart attack two years ago,” he explains. “He was at all of her games. He actually coached another team and he was in his half-time team talk with his team, and he literally died from a heart attack.

“You had that kind of emotional story and then a team doctor is from an indigenous background, the Maori background, and he gave us all that history.”

Also contributing to the team’s harmony is their motivation to do two of their key absentees proud - Rebekah Stott and Rosie White, who are both battling health problems.

That drive was on show against Australia in their opening fixture. Despite a lack of game time, New Zealand pulled a goal back late on and fought to the last minute, but lost 2-1.

The Aussies had similar issues in their preparation, albeit not as drastic. However, Saturday’s opponents, the USWNT, certainly have not.

“I come from an era that is very different, where you just got out and you played,” Sermanni says. “You coped with what you had to cope with. That sort of inequality, personally, I don't feel too impacted by that.

"It's just important that we don't focus on, 'This is what they've got. They've got all these staff. They've got all this stuff'.”

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With the USWNT suffering a shock 3-0 defeat to Sweden, as far apart as their past 18 months have been, the two nations go into the game with one thing in common: neither have any points on the board.

“I don't know if [the Sweden result was] a good or a bad thing!” Sermanni laughs, anticipating a response from the world champions.

“Hopefully, there might be a bit of disharmony in the camp,” he adds. “Who knows?”