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Octavio Zambrano & Canada set out on the long road to 2019 and beyond

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Canada look good, but the team we’re seeing now will only bear a limited resemblance to the one that takes to the field when it matters.

Canada Soccer by Martin Bazyl

It’s early days, but Octavio Zambrano has made progress in a number of areas since being appointed Canada coach back in May.

At the Gold Cup, he oversaw the breakout performance of Alphonso Davies and coaxed the best out of Scott Arfield, who needed to be Canada’s top player and was. Lucas Cavallini and Atiba Hutchinson have both returned to the fold and the roles of young players such as Michael Petrasso and Anthony Jackson-Hamel have successfully been increased.

Zambrano comes across as calm and astute, as interested in the long-term picture as the short and all in all, a good fit for the men’s national team in its current state.

Soccer: 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup-Jamaica at Canada Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

There are plenty of problems still to solve, of course, and many do not have obvious answers.

Dejan Jakovic, a 32-year-old playing in the NASL, is the pick of an alarmingly thin group of central defenders. No one appears quite sure how long Hutchinson, now 34, will stick around, and Cyle Larin continues to look a far better player in purple than in red.

On Saturday night against Jamaica, the 16-year-old carrying a lot of weight on his shoulders hit his first bump in the road.

All of those issues demand attention, but Zambrano’s most important task right now is not so much solving them as it is figuring out which of them matters most.


What I mean by that is that every decision Zambrano makes has to be put into the context of the timeline he is working with. Even by international football standards, the two-year gap Canada face between the Gold Cup just gone and the next one, as well as the start of the new World Cup cycle, is a long one.

All of Canada’s current strengths, weaknesses and question marks have to be considered with that in mind. Who knows where and what Davies and Larin will be by 2019, let alone 2022? Arfield will be 34 by the time the finals in Qatar come around and Hutchinson nearly 40.

You would expect at least a couple more dual-nationals will be brought into the fold over the next couple of years, too, and what if a teenager like Zachary Brault-Guillard at Lyon or Liam Millar at Liverpool turns out to be special?

Soccer: 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup-Jamaica at Canada Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

That Zambrano appears keen to play an active role in the development of the young players in his pool rather than simply leaving them to sink or swim with their clubs is a good thing, but the control a national-team coach has is inevitably limited.

Take Arfield, for example: he was released by Huddersfield Town after a 19th-place finish in the Championship before Burnley saw something, nurtured it and turned him into a Premier League player.

Things will change in the club game over the next couple of years and much more over the next five.

Consider how many players who were in the team that beat Belize two years ago this month have a significant role to play today:

Stamatopoulous, Ledgerwood, Straith, Edgar, De Jong, Johnson, Hutchinson, De Guzman, Nakajima-Farran, Larin, Ricketts.

Rewind half a decade to the 1-0 win over Panama in September 2012 and the lineup is almost unrecognizable:

Hirschfeld, McKenna, Edgar, Jazic, Hainault, Johnson, De Guzman, De Rosario, Hutchinson, Occean, Jackson.

Chances are, the team that beat Jamaica on Saturday will not look much like the one that is out there when there are finally points on the line.

With that being the case, Zambrano must separate what he can do now that will still be relevant when that day comes and what probably won’t be.


So, what can the coach really achieve over such a considerable stretch without any competitive games?

Though certain components of his lineup will remain in flux, he can identify a handful of core players young enough now to play through the next cycle.

Davies is the obvious one. Milan Borjan and Samuel Piette also fit the bill and Arfield and Junior Hoilett - though they will be into their 30s by 2022 - aren’t going anywhere any time soon.

He can continue to work with players who appear to be potential starters as of today: Petrasso, Jackson-Hamel, Cavallini, Larin and Sam Adekugbe, to name a few. Not all of them will live up to their full promise but if even just a couple become reliable pieces, that helps.

Soccer: 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup-Jamaica at Canada Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

He can build a schedule of friendlies of increasing difficulty to create a sense of purpose and direction for the team between now and 2019, rather than wandering aimlessly from one exhibition match to another.

“We need to face Mexico more times, we need to face the U.S. more times,” Zambrano said on Saturday. “We need to go down and play Costa Rica and Honduras in their fields. We need to go to South America and play the top teams from South America.

“These are the types of things that we need to do as a country, as a national team. Once we do that, we’ll know where we really stand and when we come back to play the World Cup qualifiers, we will be ready.”

And he can continue to establish a team identity.

It’s been so far, so good on that front. The 4-3-3 formation Zambrano has adopted is flexible enough to incorporate new players on the fly while simultaneously ensuring that core tenets such as swift ball movement and organized pressing are consistently maintained.

The long road ahead for Canada is a unique challenge, but also a potentially advantageous one; Zambrano has the rare managerial luxury of being able to stay true to a long-term vision without having to bend and compromise under the short-term pressure of achieving results.

That should mean that the coach’s position is under little scrutiny by the time the summer of 2019 rolls around.

In the meantime, there is plenty to do. Zambrano has taken to life with the men’s national team impressively so far, but we have only have a fleeting idea of what his Canada will look like when the games really start to matter.