By Matthew Gourlie
After a mere 298 days, the Octavio Zambrano era is over.
The 59-year-old Ecuadoran manager’s reign will go down as one of the shortest and most bizarre tenures in Canadian men’s national soccer team managerial history.
The details of how Zambrano went from the Canadian Soccer Association’s man to persona non grata in 10 months may come out in the coming days — or may never be revealed at all.
What is certain is that John Herdman will take over as the new men’s national team manager and program director overseeing all of the men’s national youth teams down to the under-14 level.
It also seems quite apparent that the CSA botched most aspects of this process since they mercifully ended Benito Floro’s tenure in charge.
Six months after parting ways with Floro, the CSA announced that after an “extensive search” they had hired Zambrano to take over the men’s program on March 17. There was no need to rush into a decision on the next manager outside of getting the hire done before CSA president Victor Montagliani moved on to do the same job with CONCACAF.
It appears that the CSA had almost immediate buyer’s remorse. There were rumblings of discontent coming out of 237 Metcalfe Street for months before Zambrano finally “departed” the program Monday.
Even if there was some discord, Zambrano apparently survived a performance review in mid-November. Which begs the question, why now?
The results on the pitch were largely positive. Zambrano won a pair of under-23 friendly matches and finished with a 3-2-2 record with the senior team that included draws with Costa Rica and Honduras at the Gold Cup. That was good enough to top their group as they advanced to the knockout stage for the first time since 2009 before losing 2-1 to Jamaica in the quarter-finals.
The performance at the CONCACAF championship had its flaws, but after setting his young team out to attack, Zambrano won some admirers after years after negative, tepid play under Floro.
Zambrano coached the LA Galaxy and the MetroStars in New York in Major League Soccer and became known for coaching winning, attacking sides that also had a penchant for falling in the playoffs.
In 1980 Zambrano moved from Ecuador to Chapman University in California to continue his playing career. He made Southern California his home as he began a career as a club coach before becoming an MLS assistant with the Galaxy.
Zambrano has always enjoyed unearthing hidden gems. He found them coaching in California in the pre-MLS era and has successes like Jose Izquierdo — who played under him at Deportivo Pereira in Colombia — and was named the Belgian league’s top player in 2016.
In an interview with the11.ca before Christmas, Zambrano said he wanted to increase the men’s talent pool and overhaul the scouting system by adding three regional base scouts.
Montagliani, in the final month of his four-year run as the president of the CSA before he became the president of CONCACAF, appeared on TSN 690 Montreal radio on April 11. During Tony Marinaro’s The Montreal Forum Show, he asked Montagliani about finding talent outside of the professional academies and getting those players into the program.
“If you think we’re actually missing players, it’s actually not happening. It’s an urban myth,” Montagliani said.
It isn’t difficult to see how Zambrano’s desire to create new positions to tap into talent that he felt was falling between the cracks and the CSA’s faith in their own existing scouting system could result in points of contention.
While Zambrano reportedly travelled to Italy, Portugal and Chile to scout and court potential Canadian players, Sandor reports that he never spoke to anyone at FC Edmonton about their players. The same is true of NASL champion San Francisco Deltas.
It seems like there must be much more to the CSA’s concerns or grievances, but there are a lot of tight lips at the moment.
Monday, Zambrano’s only statement so far was a retweet of a thread from @Camisa_Doce that he said was “the most accurate” comment about his departure.
The CSA has had virtually no comment about his departure to date. Their press release makes no mention of him being fired, merely that he departed the program, as if he vanished in a puff of smoke.
Watching Herdman go from a successful women’s coach to helming the men’s team will be an interesting experiment. Given that the move has unsettled both national team programs, it is a risk that all involved will hope pays off.
Herdman’s assistant Kenneth Heiner-Møller will take over as the women’s head coach and program director and Bev Priestman will become Heiner-Møller’s assistant and take over as EXCEL program director for the U15-U23 age groups.
Canadian soccer entered the new year with optimism about the direction of the men’s program and a hope that the women’s team was on the cusp of being one of the best teams in the world. A week later, there is uncertainty surrounding both programs.
This is a very difficult decision to explain and it is now up to the CSA to make sense of this decision.