MONTREAL – The Octavio Zambrano era officially began on Tuesday night at Stade Saputo where the Canadian men’s team earned a 2-1 win over Curacao in an international friendly.
It was an evening of many firsts: the Reds’ first match on home soil this year, the first game in charge for Zambrano since being appointed manager, and the first senior-team appearances for four talented youngsters.
Tuesday’s tilt was also Canada’s first and only tune-up match before this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Here’s some thoughts on the game:
You have to crawl before you can walk
When he took over the reins back in March, Zambrano publicly stated his goal was to help Canada, currently 109th in the FIFA world rankings, become a dangerous attacking side. That’s no small feat considering the Reds’ historical scoring problems. Not only did Canada bow out in the group stage of the last three Gold Cups, they only scored one goal over the course of those three tournaments.
Tuesday’s outing was a disjointed one from an offensive perspective. The opening half was pretty poor from Canada, who struggled to break down Curacao and put together stretches of quality build-up play. Striker Cyle Larin looked far too isolated at times as he was denied service from his midfield. Only after Zambrano made changes in the second half did Canada come alive in attack and dictate the pace of the match.
You may not want to hear this, but patience is required. Zambrano only had the players in for their first training camp for about a week before Tuesday’s game, so it was hardly a surprise that they didn’t automatically gel. It was unrealistic to think that the Reds were going to come out guns-a-blazing and overwhelm even a modest team such as Curacao. Zambrano is playing the long game here. In the meantime, expectations have to be tempered.
“We will get that consistency as the days go by and as the players begin to understand what we’re trying to do. I saw glimpses of it [tonight] — quick play, changing the point of attack, being aggressive and looking for the ball. I can’t say I’m completely pleased about everything, but you can’t ask for more at this stage,” Zambrano told reporters after the match.
Solid showings by the youngsters
Notwithstanding Larin’s ineffectiveness, Canada’s youngsters acquitted themselves quite well against Curacao. Four prospects earned their first caps for Canada: Toronto FC’s Raheem Edwards (who was in the starting 11), Vancouver Whitecaps teenager Alphonso Davies, Mark-Anthony Kaye and Juan Cordova. Any time Canada can blood four young players and allow them to gain valuable international experience has to be considered a good night.
It was Davies’ introduction early in the second half that breathed life into Canada’s limp attack, with the Whitecaps star taking on Curacao’s defenders and causing problems in the final third. Montreal Impact forward Anthony Jackson-Hamel, another youngster who entered the game as a second-half substitute, used his speed and size to bully Curacao’s back line before scoring the winner in the 86th minute. It was his second goal in only his fourth appearance for Canada.
Zambrano was encouraged by the displays of his debuting young players, and felt the inexperienced Davies has a bright future both for club and country.
“Youth really has nothing to do with it in terms of how much you can contribute on the field. I thought [Davies] came in and made a big difference,” Zambrano said.
Zambrano later added: “There is no fear factor with him. He’s a seasoned player even though he’s young. He has some incredible tools. … He has an immense career ahead of him. We’re just seeing the beginning of what he can give us.”
No fear. That’s it, exactly. Davies plays with no fear, and it’s that kind of attitude that Canada’s attack has long needed.
The poor attendance: It’s actually a good thing
Large swathes of Stade Saputo were completely barren on Tuesday night. Exactly 27 fans were sitting in the East Stand behind Curacao’s goal just minutes before kickoff. Yes, I actually counted. Canada Soccer announced the attendance at 6,026, but honestly, that looked to be a charitable estimation.
Social media blew up over the disappointing attendance, with Montreal being chastised for not coming out to support the Canadian men’s team. Debates raged as to whether or not the city should be allowed to host another national team game, and whether the match would have drawn more fans had it been held elsewhere.
Here’s the thing to remember: This was a mid-week friendly against Curacao, a nation with little soccer pedigree and who most people likely couldn’t pick out on a map. I couldn’t do it. Only after doing a quick Google search did I discover the tiny island is located off the coast of Venezuela.
It’s wrong to expect Zambrano to immediately turn this Canadian team into world-beaters. It’s also misguided to think the Reds should automatically command a grand audience whenever they play on home soil.
Truth be told, Stade Saputo was the perfect venue to stage this game. Montreal is a very tough sports market. The people here love big events — be it Formula One or UFC — and they love winners. Aside from the Canadiens, pro teams and other sports have to fight for every scrap of attention they get.
Tuesday’s sparse turnout provided more evidence of the hard work that lies ahead for Zambrano to make this Canadian men’s side become relevant. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good thing. There should be no false pretence about where this team currently stands in the Canadian sports landscape. Respect should be earned, not automatically given.