Alphonso Davies will make his official debut for Canada at the Gold Cup. Marc-Andre Donato / Canadian Soccer Association
By Neil Davidson
Canada plays its first competitive game under Octavio Zambrano on Friday when it takes on French Guiana to open the 2017 Gold Cup.
More demanding group-phase games await against Costa Rica and Honduras, but Zambrano is not about to take lightly the French territory nestled between Brazil and Suriname.
“They’re a good side,” the Ecuadorian-born coach said on the eve of the game in Harrison, N.J. “They have had to do something good to be in this tournament … They are, I would say, the same level as Curacao. They have French players with Caribbean roots whereas Curacao has Dutch players with Caribbean roots.
“They are all legitimate players in the professional league in France and some local players. But they’re a good side. I’ve seen them on video. They have a good team.”
The Canadian men beat 68th-ranked Curacao 2-1 in a June 13 friendly in Montreal, Zambrano’s first game in charge since taking over the men’s program in March.
Canada scrimmaged against Nicaragua on Monday in Florida before flying to New Jersey.
“Even though the Curacao game was a good test, it really wasn’t enough,” said Zambrano. “We needed another one.”
Zambrano got some good news on the eve of the CONCACAF championship when his team rose nine spots to No. 100 in the FIFA rankings. Because it is not a member of FIFA, French Guiana is not ranked.
French Guiana qualified for its first ever Gold Cup by reaching the Caribbean Cup semifinals, where it lost to Jamaica 4-2 on penalty kicks after a 1-1 draw. Coach Jair Karam’s side then edged Martinique 1-0 to finish third on a goal by Guingamp forward Sloan Privat.
The French Guiana roster also includes 37-year-old Florent Malouda, a former Chelsea and Lyon star now playing in the Indian league.
Zambrano has brought a mix of experience and youth to the tournament. While star midfielder Atiba Hutchinson continues his national team hiatus and Will Johnson opts for rest, Marcel de Jong, Patrice Bernier, Tosaint Ricketts, Milan Borjan, Dejan Jakovic, Jonathan Osorio, Samuel Piette, Adam Straith, and Russell Teibert have been to a combined 22 CONCACAF championships.
The 14 Gold Cup debutantes include Vancouver Whitecaps teenager Alphonso Davies, who will commit his international future to Canada the moment he steps on the tournament field.
Zambrano, whose coaching resume includes clubs in Colombia, Ecuador, Hungary, Moldova and the U.S., is eager to see his players under the Gold Cup spotlight.
“It is when you get the full measure of how a player will react in certain situations,” he said.
For Zambrano, the first few months at the helm have been hectic but enjoyable. He still calls the chance to help develop soccer in Canada a “dream job.”
“There are challenges obviously that come with a new set of circumstances but that makes it all the more rewarding once you get the job done,” he said. “I knew this wasn’t going to be easy. No job at this level is easy especially when you have to affect positively on so many different fronts. It’s not just the senior team but the whole mindset of how Canada is preparing for big tournaments and where the resources are placed and where the priorities lie.”
Zambrano noted he has inherited “seven projects” with which he had little to do with in terms of planning or resource allocation. The Gold Cup is the fourth, with an under-15 tournament and games featuring the under-20 and senior teams （against Jamaica in September） to come.
As for captain, Zambrano said Bernier will likely lead the team. The 37-year-old Montreal Impact midfielder is eager to take the field.
“Canada, this group wants to show what it’s about,” said Bernier, who has 54 caps to his credit. “We have a lot of young players also who want to show that they’re up-and-coming and that they’re the future of Canada.
“And me myself and certain other veterans want to take advantage of maybe the last moments with the national team and help them out so this group continues with some confidence and strength. This Gold Cup could be a good start to Octavio’s reign and what these younger players will be looking forward to in the future.”
The top two teams in each of the three groups and the two best third-place sides advance to the quarter-finals of the tournament, which runs through July 26.