By Matthew Gourlie
Octavio Zambrano and the Canadian men’s national team have delivered in both the abstract and the concrete so far at the 2017 Gold Cup.
After raising expectations they have a chance to meet and surpass them once again by winning their quarter-final match against Jamaica.
The new-look Canadian side has delivered tangible results in the group stage. After two straight Gold Cups without a goal, the Canadians opened with four goals and a win and capped the opening round with a pair of credible draws to advance.
While all the initial goals have been met, a larger goal also has been achieved. Under Zambrano, Canada has been positive, daring and — dare it be said? — entertaining and pleasing to the eye.
The new Canadian head coach feels his team are close to displaying the mentality he has sought since taking over the job.
“It’s been an enjoyable process because the results have been on our side. We have grown as a group, as a team. We have been able to bring into our game certain aspects that I like and that I can now see them express on the field,” Zambrano said. “We are not consistent enough and we tend to fall back into old habits. And so we need to make sure that that doesn’t happen. All I know is that it has been a steady progression in an upwards direction from this team.
“As I said before the biggest issue has been that mentally we now believe that we can do this. That was the toughest assignment and I think we are on the verge of completing and really turning this thing around. After that I really believe that anything can happen.”
The Canadians should be full of self-belief heading into Thursday’s quarter-final in Glendale, Ariz. (7:30 EST, TSN2) against the Reggae Boyz.
They also are in the rare position of being favoured in a Gold Cup knockout match.
The Canadians have no excuses heading into the quarter-finals. Jamaica is missing seven players who started their last World Cup qualifier.
Canada is healthy, they were as near-full strength as can be reasonably expected and just added Cyle Larin to the roster. Having Atiba Hutchinson or Will Johnson would have made the team better, but with Patrice Bernier has been steady and Scott Arfield and Sam Piette have been consistently outstanding in the midfield those absences haven’t been felt.
Finishing second in Group A afforded Canada an extra day of rest and they have had two more days between matches than the Jamaicans did. In addition, the roof in Glendale will take the edge off of the desert heat.
In a tight match where a draw will immediately result in penalty kicks without 30 extra minutes anything can happen. A loss would certainly not make this Gold Cup run a failure, but it would blunt some of the enthusiasm that is enveloping he program for a change.
The reward for a victory is a trip to the Rose Bowl for the semifinal where they could potentially face Mexico in front of 90,000 fans on Sunday night. Not only would that be a great experience for the young Canadian team, but it would also add some buzz to a program that has been sorely lacking it in recent years.
Which is not to say that advancing past Jamaica will be simple. Nothing about playing the Reggae Boyz has been easy so far during the tournament. They stymied Mexico to a 0-0 stalemate and were out-played for much of their opener, but were able to find a way to score twice against the run of play for a 2-0 win over Curaçao.
“Jamaica is a team with individuals that can change the game at any moment. We have to be prepared to face that,” Zambrano said. “More importantly, we have to do our own homework, fixing some issues that we have had in these past three games. We have conceded opportunities to our opponents that are largely an issue of concentration — or a lack of it. We need to tighten up certain things within our team. Once we do that, I believe we have what it takes to face the Jamaican team.”
If Canada is going to have any success in the knockout phase they will have to improve their marking on set pieces. Both Honduras and Costa Rica were gifted multiple open headers right in the heart of the Canadian area and the Canucks were only punished once.
Jamaica has congested the midfield and used their pace on the flanks — particularly their fullbacks Alvas Powell and Kemar Lawrence — and their pace up front to try to stress defences. They will surely like their chances of stressing the Canadian fullbacks and testing the pace of the central defence pairing.
Their tournament has been highlighted by the outstanding goalkeeping of captain Andre Blake and their organized and resolute defending.
The opening goal — should it come at all — will be key because it will either force Jamaica to commit more to the attack or it will leave Canada more exposed to the counter if they need to press for an equalizer.
They will likely be without Seattle midfielder Oneil Fisher who is battling a hamstring injury and missed training in the lead-up to the match.
The Canadian starting 11 should largely pick itself depending on whether Zambrano opts for the experience of Marcel de Jong at left back or the pace of Sam Adekugbe. The biggest question mark will be who starts up top. Larin’s recall comes after Lucas Cavallini and Anthony Jackson-Hamel both started in that role in the group stage, but failed to score.
After being charged with a DUI on June 15, Larin was left at home for the start of the tournament. With Larin joining the team, Raheem Edwards from Toronto FC made way in the squad.
Zambrano said Larin won’t walk back into a starting role based on reputation, but he will have the chance in training to show he should be considered.
“He has to show that he is ready, excited, motivated and compete for that position. I think he can — and should — get on the field because he is one of the players who has had the most activity. He has been a perennial starter for the Orlando team. Having those games coming into this camp certainly helps,” Zambrano said. “Everything happens in training. We have a few days… and we will see what happens then.”