Octavio Zambrano looks across Canada and wonders about the soccer talent that has fallen through the cracks.
Zambrano, head coach of the Canadian men’s national team program, says it’s his mission to find it.
"This is a vast country," said Zambrano. "We have an influx of immigrants daily, thousands of them — and most of them from countries that love soccer and soccer is their main sport.
"We would be shorting ourselves if we don’t delve into this well of talent that comes from abroad," the Ecuador native added. "These are legitimate players — the majority of them, I am sure, grateful to have been given the opportunity to come to a great country like Canada, for themselves, for their families.
"Just like Alphonso Davies, just to name one. I think there are many more out there. We need to find them."
Born in a refugee camp in Ghana to Liberian parents, Davies moved to Canada with his family when he was five. Today, the 16-year-old Vancouver Whitecap is a teenage soccer sensation — and wearing the Maple Leaf.
Davies, with three goals in four matches, won the Golden Boot as the top scorer in this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup. He also earned the Young Player Award and was named to the tournament Best XI.
Davies, who did attend Canadian age-group camps, did it all in his second, third, fourth and fifth matches for Canada after gaining his citizenship.
The young star will be missing Sunday when the 96th-ranked Canadians faces No. 99 El Salvador in a friendly at Houston’s BBVA Compass Stadium. He is suspended after being red-carded in Canada’s 2-0 win over Jamaica in September.
Put in charge of the men’s side of Canada soccer in March, Zambrano essentially inherited someone else’s plan and budget. He has presented his own blueprint and should learn in November what road map he will be given for 2018.
He looks forward to a year which he calls a "clean slate."
"I can’t wait to see if all these initiatives that I have put forth, (that) they are given the OK for us to proceed. And then I can tell you Canada will just take a quantum leap if that happens."
Seven months into the job, Zambrano is eager to put his stamp on things. He is not one for standing still.
"I think we could go faster. I feel like I could do more and should do more. I hope to have the resources to do that."
He is grateful to the CSA for adding another warmup game before the Gold Cup. A game against Curacao was all that was originally planned.
Zambrano wanted more and a closed-door session against Nicaragua — four 30-minute periods over two days in Sunrise, Fla., was arranged.
"It was a wise decision by the CSA because it was in that game where a lot of the thoughts about how to approach the Gold Cup came together."
Zambrano says he believes he has a "pretty good handle" now on the talent in the system.
"But I know there are out there many more that I haven’t seen yet. And I’m keen to look there."
He believes Canadian soccer has to look outside the box for talent.
"I believe this is part of my charter as well — to make sure I have the mechanisms put in place to find those players. It’s not just about what happens in the established routes to participate and compete.
"That is great but there is another world out there of many many many players that I know are playing the game but that are perhaps not being looked at."
Zambrano has already brought in players from Ontario’s League 1 to scrimmage with the national team. And for this camp, he included 21-year-old Caniggia Elva, a St. Lucia-born Calgary-raised forward who went to Europe at 18.
Elva, Zambrano notes, did not come to Canada Soccer’s attention through "regular channels."
Elva was brought into an under-23 camp in March in Qatar, Zambrano’s first hands-on assignment as Canada coach, after getting calls from Ramon Mifflin, the technical director of Calgary South West United for whom Elva played growing up.
"We need to establish a solid scouting grid," said Zambrano. "That is something I have presented to the CSA directors, in how to go about doing this in a systemic manner.
"I’m hoping that they sign off on it. If they do, we will reach a completely different level of awareness about what we really have in Canada. Because we do have a lot and I think we’re tapping only a very little."
In a perfect world, Zambrano says he would have liked to have taken his team to Cuscatlan Stadium in San Salvador to see them perform in hostile conditions.
Zambrano is already at work, changing the team ethos.
He says some of his players have told him that, in the past, national team selection was seen as automatic by some. That is no longer the case, he says. The national team shirt has to be earned.
"You don’t do it, you’re not going to be called back."
A portion of the proceeds from Sunday’s game will go to hurricane Harvey relief efforts.