By Matthew Gourlie
Octavio Zambrano started from the bottom and now he’s here — in a job he worked his whole life to land.
The new head coach of Canada’s men’s national soccer team has a similar journey to prominence in mind for the program he inherits.
“We have a responsibility… to make sure that Canada reaches not the next level, but reaches the highest level,” Zambrano said at his introductory press conference Friday in Toronto. “I am extremely excited that I was chosen to do this job and for this task. I feel like I have prepared all my life for this job.
“This is the pinnacle of my career.
“I am very thankful and I will not disappoint.”
The journey to fulfilling his lifelong goal of managing a national program began at the grassroots in Southern California.
Zambrano, 59, moved from his native Ecuador to play NCAA Division II soccer at Chapman University in Los Angeles. He played two seasons indoors with the Los Angeles Lazers and began coaching. He worked his way up through youth programs and elite select teams to becoming an assistant coach with the APSL’s Los Angeles Salsa and then an assistant with Los Angeles Galaxy when MLS debuted in 1996.
That experience at the lower levels of the game should serve Zambrano in good stead as he oversees all of Canada’s men’s programs from the under-23 Olympic team down through the age levels to the under-14s.
The CSA recently removed former technical director Tony Fonseca from his post as director of high performance.
“We thought it was important, even before we hired Octavio, that we change the structure of the program so that there was uniformity and that there was one voice,” said Canadian Soccer Association president Victor Montagliani. “Too often we have too many voices in Canadian soccer. I think it’s important to have one voice.”
That voice wants to “create an identity of football” throughout the program. Beyond developing a style and a mode of play, Zambrano wants to change the mentality in the program and in the players in the country. He wants to instil his players with self-belief and have them looking to impose themselves on the game.
That was certainly the hallmark of his teams when he was a head coach in MLS.
In his time as the Galaxy’s head coach from 1997-99 and then as the head of coach of the MetroStars from 2000-02, his teams were known for an attractive, attacking style of play. They were also quite successful as Zambrano still has the second best winning percentage of an MLS coach — behind only Bruce Arena — amongst coaches with at least a season under their belt in the league.
After his MLS tenure, Zambrano was well-traveled with stops in Moldova and Hungary before working as Peter Vermes’ assistant in Kansas City for three years in MLS and coaching Deportivo Pereira in Colombia. He returned to Ecuador where he was the head coach, technical director and sporting director for El Nacional from 2014-16. Last season he saved Delfin from relegation in Ecuador’s Serie A before leaving the job at the end of the year.
He feels his varied resumé leaves him well prepared for the idiosyncracies of Canadian soccer. Zambrano said his first six months would be about observing the players in his pool and the program as a whole to see what is working and what needs improving.
Those observations will begin on Wednesday when Canada heads to Edinburgh to face Scotland. Interim manager Michael Findlay has stayed on as an assistant with the men’s team and Zambrano said they have already had meaningful conversations and have already begun to work towards what they would like to accomplish.
Zambrano has also named Javier Livia as an assistant coach and Norberto Salamanca as his physical preparation coach. Livia hails from Peru and spent 10 years working on the staff with Livorno in Italy’s Serie B.
Following the Scotland friendly, Zambrano will take over coaching duties with the under-23 team when they face Uzbekistan and Qatar in the final week of March in a tournament in Qatar.