LAVAL, Que. — As excited as he is about Canada’s young soccer talent, national team coach Octavio Zambrano has a special fondness for 37-year-old midfielder Patrice Bernier.
And there is a good chance that Bernier will be wearing the captain’s armband when Zambrano, who was hired in March, coaches the squad for the first time on Canadian soil in a friendly June 13th against Curacao at Saputo Stadium.
“There’s a very high possibility that will happen,” Zambrano said Thursday at the suburban training centre where Canada will prepare for the match. “If there’s someone who has earned it, it’s him.
“But these things fall into place when you’re in camp and you see the guys day after day and how they perform.”
It certainly wouldn’t hurt ticket sales to have the popular Montreal Impact captain, a Brossard, Que., native who intends to retire after this season, leading Canada’s squad in the preparation match for this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament.
But Zambrano doesn’t see it as a marketing move, particularly after watching him play in the Impact’s 4-2 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps in Voyageurs Cup play on Tuesday night.
“They asked me who do you think is the man of the match and I said Patrice Bernier,” the 59-year-old coach said. “It’s his ability to find the right place and make the right pass, not waste any energy unnecessarily or put people under pressure.
“He plays the right ball every time. Very (rarely) do you see Bernier lose a ball. The game I prefer is about fluidity, transitioning the ball from defence to offence in a clever manner, and I’m counting on him. Quite honestly, I might have trouble to replace him when he decides (to retire). I convinced him for the Gold Cup, but after that, I may have another conversation for him to continue a little longer.”
Canada’s squad will begin training early next week. Zambrano will bring in a large group just to look at players he has yet to work with, then pare the squad down to 18 or 20, mainly the players who will compete when they open Gold Cup play July 7 against Guyana.
Zambrano’s ambitions for the longer term are to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and have a strong team in place if a joint Canada-U.S.-Mexico bid for the 2026 tournament succeeds. Canada, ranked 109th in the world (Curacao is 70th), has a long way to go, but the Ecuadorian coach is excited about the young talent that is emerging.
Striker Cyle Larin, 22, is turning heads with Orlando in MLS, and he witnessed 16-year-old midfielder Alphonso Davies score an impressive goal against Montreal for the Whitecaps.
“If we get to debut Alphonso that would be great,” he said. “I would be proud to be the coach that puts him on the field in a Canada jersey for the first time.”
Canada’s future may hinge on players who have yet to commit to the national team, including the Impact’s 18-year-old midfielder Ballou Tabla, who can also play for his native Ivory Coast. Zambrano has met with Ballou and is confident he will choose Canada.
Others in his sights include 22-year-old midfielder Bryan Cristante, who plays for Atalanta in Italy but is eligible because his father was born in Toronto, and two Canadian-born 24-year-olds — centreback Ricardo Ferreira of Braga in Portugal and striker Lucas Cavallini of the Penasol club in Uruguay.
“That’s three very good players who would elevate immediately the level of the team,” said Zambrano. “If we can manage to get these players into the national team, and I think we have a good chance to do so, we can look at big things.
“Bigger than just participating, which is what we need to extricate from our guys’ minds. We are not just participants, we are protagonists. That is the driving message of this game coming up and hopefully it’s reflected against Curacao.”
Soccer Quebec announced that Valerio Gazzola, who coached the Impact to the 1994 title in the defunct APSL, will coach the Canada-Quebec under-20 team at the Francophone Games July 21-30 in Ivory Coast. His assistant will be Andrew Olivieri, who has coached various national men’s and women’s squads. Gazzola said about half the team will come from the Impact’s academy, with the others from European clubs, universities and the Quebec league.