Trust must be rebuilt in fallout of Canada Soccer shake-up

John Herdman sat down with James Sharman to talk about his emotional goodbyes with his Canadian women’s national team players, including Christine Sinclair, and how he feels leaving the women’s national team better off than when he started with it.

It’s been more than a week since a seismic shift in the Canadian soccer landscape took place, but we’re still feeling the aftershock.

Canada Soccer made major news last Monday when it shockingly revealed that women’s coach John Herdman would be taking over the men’s team, and that Octavio Zambrano, who was only hired last March, was out of a job. The timing was very odd considering Canada’s solid showing at last summer’s Gold Cup, and that the Reds appeared to be playing with a newfound assertiveness and had a firm tactical identity under Zambrano.

You don’t make this type of change unless there was a serious breakdown in the relationship. As much as Herdman leveraged an offer from the English women’s national team to get the Canadian men’s job – that was a major part of why this happened – Canada Soccer wouldn’t have made the abrupt change if it felt Zambrano was still the right man for the job.

Somewhere along the way the relationship went sour, and while this appeared to unfold rather abruptly last week, it had been brewing for some time – Canada Soccer did not suddenly wake up on Monday morning and just decide to fire Zambrano and replace him with Herdman for the hell of it.

Regardless, the optics of all of this are not good, and trust must be restored by all the parties involved.

Canada Soccer was caught off-guard when reporters were tipped off about what was going to happen, forcing the organization to announce the coaching change much sooner than it had originally planned. Herdman has since done a few media interviews, but there’s been no formal press conference to announce the coaching change. Canada Soccer president Steve Reed has been relatively quiet on the matter, although he did briefly speak to this reporter shortly before the news broke of Herdman’s appointment.

Other than that, Canada Soccer has said very little in public, and its press release barely mentioned Zambrano, all of which reflects poorly on the organization. If there are legal issues involved that prevent Canada Soccer from being more transparent in explaining what happened, that’s fair enough. But that should be communicated to fans and media alike, instead of keeping everybody in the dark.

Likewise, Zambrano has been very quiet. Aside from posting one cryptic message on Twitter, the former Canadian coach hasn’t shed any light as to what happened, turning down offers to speak on the record with several members of the media. Zambrano was also scheduled to speak at next week’s National Soccer Coaching Conference in Toronto. He has since been replaced.

“Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond our control Octavio Zambrano will no longer be presenting at the conference,” one of the NSCC organizers told Sportsnet. The NSCC representative didn’t say if Zambrano decided to pull out, but it’s rather suspicious he will no longer be speaking at an event where he would have faced questions as to what happened.

None of the women’s players saw this coming, and were only told by Herdman shortly before Canada Soccer made an official announcement. It had to have been quite the shock to find out that the man who they’ve been to hell and back with – the man who guided the team to back-to-back Olympic bronze medals – was quitting in the buildup to next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in order to take charge of the men’s program. Herdman’s successor, his former assistant coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller, will have some work to do in earning the trust of the women’s players after the way this went down.

The same predicament faces Herdman with members of the men’s team who, like their female counterparts, didn’t know this was in the works. Zambrano was generally well-liked and respected by his players, and the general feeling amongst the national team was that progress was being made under Zambrano. Herdman is rightly well-respected across all quarters of the Canadian soccer community for the job he did with the women’s side. But there’s no question he’ll have some work to do in earning the respect and trust of his players in the aftermath of Zambrano’s unexpected and premature exit.

Make no mistake: This is a big gamble that Canada Soccer is taking with both the men’s and women’s programs. Herdman is a well-respected coach, as is Heiner-Moller, and they deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt as they take over their new portfolios.

But the lack of open communication from Canada Soccer has led to a wave of populism and panic among fans and media, with doom and gloom proclamations in some quarters about this change being the darkest day in Canadian soccer, as well as questions about whether other candidates were interviewed or even considered for the men’s job.

The firestorm of criticism in the aftermath of this shake-up could have been quelled, or at the very least been far less vociferous, had Canada Soccer been far more open and transparent in its communication of the message.

Now, trust must be restored.

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