Canada’s men’s national team makes its return to Toronto on Saturday, taking on its Gold Cup nemesis Jamaica at BMO Field.
With his first major tournament now in the rearview mirror, Octavio Zambrano will have plenty of time in which to assess the pool of players at his disposal ahead of the beginning of the next World Cup cycle and Gold Cup in 2019.
Here are three personnel questions that will be on the coach’s mind going into the rematch with the Reggae Boyz.
1. What does the future hold for Atiba Hutchinson?
Atiba Hutchinson is back - for now, at least.
It may be for one night only. “We spoke about this possibly being his last game, but he really doesn’t have to make that decision now,” Zambrano told Sportsnet this week. “He can make it later.”
You can see why it’s not an easy decision for Hutchinson. There is surely part of him that would like to be involved as things seem to be looking up, and there is an obvious place for him in the team between Samuel Piette and - for competitive matches, if not this one - Scott Arfield.
That role was passed around Patrice Bernier, Russell Teibert and Mark-Anthony Kaye at the Gold Cup but while all three performed competently, none of them are necessarily even locks for the squad going forward, let alone the starting XI (unless he changes his mind, Bernier is three months away from retirement).
Hutchinson would not be taking minutes away from a blue-chip prospect - and even if he was, we’re talking about Canada’s best player here, not some run-of-the-mill veteran.
But he will be nearly 40 by the time the 2022 World Cup comes around, and Canada are still a long shot to qualify until the tournament expands to 48 teams. It can be hard to really buy in when those are the stakes - especially when you’re trying to preserve your body for a high level of club football.
Canada have a while to wait before they play any competitive soccer, anyway, so Hutchinson has plenty of time to think about it. For now, there’s not much more he can do than take it one international window at a time.
2. Can Amer Didic help at centre-back?
One player who hasn’t really been spoken about but I’ll been keeping a close eye on at BMO Field on Saturday is 22-year-old Sporting Kansas City defender Amer Didic.
Central defence is the biggest problem Zambrano has to solve, and his best bet may be looking for help that is not currently at his disposal - more on that in a minute.
But Didic is an interesting wild card. He started 2015 as a trialist with the Swope Park Rangers out of an NAIA school and ended it as a Defender of the Year finalist and an All-League First Team selection in the USL. In May of this year, he signed a first-team deal with Sporting KC.
That’s some rise, and as mentors go Peter Vermes and Matt Besler are two pretty good ones for a young defender.
Didic has a massive opportunity - play well here and he will be a contender to continue to start at centre-back just like that, such is Canada’s lack of depth there.
3. Are reinforcements on the way?
There are three players in particular that Zambrano appears to be attempting to woo towards a commitment to Canada.
The most realistic is probably Braga defender Ricardo Ferreira. He is 24, was born in Mississauga and would immediately become Canada’s best centre-back by a distance. Braga have been a top-five team in Portugal for three years in a row and have qualified for the Europa League group stage again this season.
Ferreira was in Toronto FC’s academy before joining Porto and then AC Milan, and represented Portugal at just about every youth level. A senior call-up looks a long shot at this point, though, opening the door for Canada.
There will also be growing hope around midfielder Bryan Cristante. Currently on loan at Atalanta from Benfica, the 22-year-old appeared an Italy international in the making as a teenager and Milan’s decision to sell him to Benfica for around €5 million did not go down well.
But his progress has slowed since then. Cristante is starting - and doing reasonably well - in Serie A at a relatively young age and was not born in Canada but qualifies through his father, so he’s likely to hold out for Italy for a little longer. Both Benito Floro and now Zambrano, though, have given off the impression that their advances have not been completely shut down.
Then, of course, there is Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla. Zambrano has been talking a big game about him this week:
“Obviously, I have a vested interest in what he decides to do. But If I was an outsider looking in, I would say there’s no way you can compare what the Ivory Coast can do versus what Canada can give him, especially with the 2026 World Cup likely coming here. It’s a no-brainer for me.”
That’s a bit strong; the Ivory Coast have qualified for three consecutive World Cups and were African champions in 2015. But that’s a result of a deep, talented squad full of players plying their trade in top European leagues, and Tabla has a ways to go before he would crack it.
Tabla has been - prematurely, in my view - pushing for a move to Europe, which is a process that is going to take precedence over any decision on his international future for now.
Where he ends up and how he adapts to those new surroundings will define his next steps.