The qualifying campaign for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar is still a few years away – hell, the qualifiers for next summer’s World Cup in Russia are still going on – but Canadian national team coach Octavio Zambrano is already planning ahead.
Canada faces El Salvador in Houston on Sunday in an international friendly, and Zambrano is using the game to look at a few new players and some other prospects, all with an eye towards building up his team’s depth ahead of the qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup.
Sportsnet chatted one-on-one with Zambrano ahead of Sunday’s match.
There’s some young players on this Canadian roster, and also some new names: Louis Beland-Goyette of the Montreal Impact, Caniggia Elva of Germany’s VfB Stuttgart II, Milovan Kapor of Israel’s Hapoel Hadera FC and Kris Twardek of England’s Millwall. Can you tell me the reason for that?
We have a relatively short period of time to look at players; we probably won’t have another get-together his year. Essentially this window in October is basically the only one we have for the rest of the year to look at as many guys as we can. There have been some guys on my radar that I haven’t been able to be bring in before. This seems to be the right time and the right opponent to do it. This is basically why.
What do you hope to gain from Sunday’s game in Houston?
El Salvador is a direct opponent of ours, and they are in CONCACAF. They are a team that plays a certain brand of soccer. They are bringing a young squad to Houston so it’s going to be very interesting from that standpoint, too. I’d like to face a more experienced squad, but it’s going to be a good match for us because I don’t think their style of play is going to change significantly. They’re going to play the same way as they did in the Gold Cup [this past summer], and for us it’s important to see an opponent like that.
How would you describe El Salvador’s style of play?
It’s more of a possession style based on moving the ball up the field in groups. It’s not so direct. It’s not like Jamaica [Canada’s last opponent], a counter-attacking team that uses its speed. El Salvador are a team that relies more on possession, getting a group of guys together and treating the ball well. They play with the ball on the ground.
Why is this game taking place in Houston? Would it not have made more sense to play them in El Salvador, so that Canadian players can get a sense of the hostile environment they’ll face when they have to go down to Central America for a World Cup qualifier?
It would have been in a perfect situation. But as it turns out for this project, we got invited with a game fee to participate with all of our expenses paid. This is good for Canada. It’s good for our guys that somebody out there, whether it’s a promoter or whomever, wanted us to play against El Salvador. That bodes well for what we can be.
In the future, if we accomplish what we want to accomplish, we’d like to have this dynamic play out more often than not. Playing these games is very expensive and if someone is willing to cover the costs, we’re willing to participate, provided it is good competition. That’s the litmus test. It has to be competitively relevant for us. We get a lot of invitations, but if they don’t meet a certain competitive standard we don’t accept.
You called up Burnley midfielder Scott Arfield for this game. For the friendly against Jamaica in Toronto last month, you let him stay with his Premier League team, even though it was an international date and Burnley was obligated to release him. How difficult is it for you to call up the guys when you want them? Do you find there are many obstacles to hurdle when dealing with clubs to get them to release players?
What I have found is that each case in unique. Whether the player is in the last year of his contract and he’s trying to secure a new deal, or if it’s a guy who has just regained his starting position and he wants to make sure he holds on to it, or whatever the circumstances are, the one thing that across the board that has been a common denominator is that the players all want to come. And when they can’t come, it’s not because they decided not to come. It because of the dynamic that I just mentioned that is playing out in that particular moment.
And there’s even times when I have advised them to stay with their clubs because I think it’s better for them. [Forward Lucas] Cavallini is one example. When we put together the team for the Jamaica game, he was out of contract and didn’t know where he was going, but he knew he was going to go somewhere. It was a difficult moment for him, so I told him don’t worry, stay where you are and make sure you sort things out. As it turned out he went to Mexico and latched on with Puebla. Now he’s playing in Mexico, and he’s scoring goals, so at that moment, it’s better that he stays with Puebla, and trains with them and secures his spot.
I have to look at it from both ways. I’d love to have him here, but at the same time it’s better for me if he’s in an environment where he’s playing in competitive games. That’s just one case. Atiba [Hutchinson] is another case, with another set of circumstances as to why he’s not here with us
You have to maintain a good relationship with the pro clubs.
Absolutely. We have to do that. I am in communication with all of my players. They can reach me at any time. We always talk about the situation. If I have to deal with the club manager, I always do that and I engage them. We’re in this together, I really believe that. Club managers want players to excel, we want them to excel, and we need to find the balance to keep our project going while players do well for their clubs.