In a shocking development that has major implications for both the Canadian men’s and women’s soccer programs, John Herdman has replaced Octavio Zambrano as coach of the national men’s team, effective immediately.
Canada Soccer confirmed to Sportsnet on Monday evening that Zambrano has departed after being hired last year, and that Herdman, who has served as the coach of the Canadian women’s team since 2011, will take control of the men’s side. Herdman has also been named the Canadian men’s national team program director. In his new role, Herdman will be responsible for all the national youth teams, from the under-14 age level and up, all the way through to the national senior team.
Kenneth Heiner-Møller will take over as Canadian women’s national team program director and head coach – Heiner-Møller has been an assistant coach under Herdman since 2015. Also, Bev Priestman will assume the role of National EXCEL Director U15-U23 and women’s national team under-20 coach, as well as women’s national team assistant coach.
“We felt as an organization that we needed to make some decisions for the longer term and our long-term philosophy, looking at growth of the men’s national team program and the youth development program. In terms of that review, we determined that we had the ideal candidate internally in John Herdman,” Canada Soccer president Steve Reed explained in a one-on-one interview with Sportsnet.
“We thought now was the time to look to John to lead the men’s program and emulate what he’s done with the women’s program.”
While Reed maintains that this change was made in order to give Herdman full control, from the youth level to the senior team, for the long-term benefit of the men’s program, one well-placed source told Sportsnet that Zambrano’s tenure as coach was viewed as “a disaster” within some quarters of Canada Soccer.
Asked to characterize the terms of Zambrano’s departure, whether he was fired or he left by mutual consent, Reed said: “It was an organizational decision. He has departed from Canada Soccer. We wish him the best of luck.”
Reed declined to give any details on Herdman’s contract with the men’s team, only saying that it was a multi-year deal, but you have to think it’ll at least carry through Canada’s qualifying campaign for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Canada is also in the running to co-host the 2026 World Cup with the United States and Mexico.
“We have some significant developments coming up, and from an organizational perspective we viewed John as being the person who can take leadership in that role, and move us towards what we want to do, and that’s qualify for the next two World Cups,” Reed said.
Born in England, Herdman was awarded the 2017 Jack Donohue “Coach of the Year” Award from the Coaching Association of Canada, and has a history of success with the Canadian women’s team, including winning a pair of Olympic bronze medals.
“It’s an honour to work on the men’s side, and to be able to stay in Canada, as well. As a family man, we’ve settled here, we’ve lived here for six years. My son and daughter are pretty settled, and with other opportunities there was a chance that we might’ve had to leave Canada. … This is good news that we can establish our roots here and keep pushing the game forward, albeit on the men’s side,” Herdman told Sportsnet in a one-on-one interview.
Herdman, 42, has never coached a national men’s team. Prior to taking the Canadian job, he managed New Zealand’s national women’s side from 2006 to 2011.
The Canadian women’s team has enjoyed its greatest success under Herdman, who led the squad to bronze medals at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. Herdman’s side also reached the quarter-finals of the 2015 FIFA World Cup staged in Canada, the team’s best showing since finishing fourth at the 2003 tournament – the Reds bowed out in the first round of the 2007 and 2011 World Cups.
Herdman said he made it known to Canada Soccer in early 2017 that he wanted to eventually make the transition into men’s coaching, and that he planned to step away from the Canadian women’s team in 2020. That, in part, appears to have led to his appointment. He told Sportsnet that he recently received job offers from a men’s club in North America, and one from a prominent women’s national team from abroad.
“From a motivational side, you get to that point in your career where you’re starting to feel ready for a new challenge, and the stars sort of aligned in some ways that some opportunities were presented in front of us… They were very good opportunities. I had some tough decisions to make and that led towards keeping a future here in Canada,” Herdman said.
He later added: “I’d always sort of talked about moving into the men’s game, and one of those opportunities came up, and a pretty prestigious opportunity came up on the women’s side. That was a big decision, as well. It’s been a crazy two months for us… [but] I felt I was ready for a new challenge, and this is where it’s ended up. I’m bloody excited.”
The possibility of losing Herdman didn’t drive the process behind this change, Reed explained.
“When you have someone who’s been as successful as John has been, there’s always a concern that there’s suitors out there looking to hire him away. … That’s always something you have to contend with, but that was not the motivating factor in this decision. Looking from an organizational perspective, it was a matter of what we have and where we want to go, and we felt that John was the right man for the job,” Reed said.
This represents one of the biggest shakeups in the history of Canadian soccer, with Zambrano being axed less than a year on the job. Zambrano was hired last March as the Canadian men’s team coach, taking over from Benito Floro, who did not have his contract renewed the previous September following the Reds’ elimination from 2018 World Cup qualifying.
Zambrano, 59, previously was in charge of the LA Galaxy and New York MetroStars in Major League Soccer. He also coached pro teams in Moldova, Hungary, Colombia and his native Ecuador.
This was Zambrano’s first job as a national team manager, and he had his work cut out right from the beginning – Canada was 117th in the FIFA world rankings, sandwiched between Botswana and Nicaragua, when he took over the coaching reigns. What’s more, Canada has not qualified for the World Cup since 1986 in Mexico (its lone appearance), and last made it to the Hex (the final round of World Cup qualifying in the CONCACAF region) for the 1998 competition held in France.
Canada also had a rough go of it at the CONCACAF Gold Cup, bowing out in the first round in three consecutive tournaments from 2009 to 2013. It even failed to win a game or score a single goal over the course of the 2011 and 2013 tournaments.
Zambrano’s first game in charge was a friendly against Curaçao on June 13, 2017 in a 2-1 win in Montreal. He then guided Canada to the quarter-finals of the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup a month later, the Reds’ first appearance in the knock-out stage of the tournament since 2009.
This represents the 13th coaching change — including interim appointments — in the last 15 years for the Canadian men’s team. No man has held on to his job for four years since Holger Osieck from 1999 to 2003. Floro lasted just over three years in the position.
It’ll be interesting to see how Canada’s players will react to working with a coach who has spent the majority of his soccer career in the women’s game. He anticipates having to convince some that he can handle the job.
“You’d be naïve not to think that there’ll be people in the football community with that perception, and that’s natural. That’s natural for most people that are transitioning, whether it’s women who have moved into men’s pro soccer, or the female referees that have moved into that side of the game,” Herdman said.
“The coaching community over the last 15 years has become more open-minded. You look at the evolution of Rafa Benitez and Jose Mourinho, coaches who hadn’t played the game at any real level, which was sacrilege 10 to 15 years ago. … It’s more about methodology and what you bring [as a coach].”
He later added: “There will be doubters, for sure. All I’ve got to do is make sure that I put my best effort into this.”
This change also comes as the women’s team prepares this year to qualify for next summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup staged in France. Herdman’s departure will no doubt cause a disruption, but Canada’s women’s side is one of the best in the world, currently ranked fifth in the world. Herdman also believes he is leaving the program in safe hands with his former assistant Kenneth Heiner-Møller. Herdman told Sportsnet that it was important to him to have a clear succession plan in place before he left to join the men’s team.
Before the news was officially announced on Monday evening, Herdman spoke to iconic Canadian captain Christine Sinclair and other members of the women’s team about his new position, and the changes with the with the women’s program.
“It’s with a heavy heart [that I leave the women’s team] because I’ve shared so many bloody, unbelievable moments with them. You’ve been through some of their darkest moments, and they’ve seen me at my worst and I’ve seen them at their worst. I’m going to leave that group behind, but I’m still in Canada and I’ll be a phone call away,” Herdman said.
“I don’t see myself as leaving that program. I’m still there in spirit in my mind.”