It looks like Octavio Zambrano just might be onto something.
Canada earned a 1-1 draw with Costa Rica in CONCACAF Gold Cup play on Tuesday night, to remain on top of Group A and undefeated in three games since the Ecuadorian manager took charge last month.
Alphonso Davies bagged his third goal in as many games for the senior national team, though his exit from the game with an apparent ankle injury will be top of mind for followers of Les Rouges in the days to come.
After two straight Gold Cups without a goal, Canada now find themselves in an unfamiliar position: a draw in their final group-stage match on Friday would be enough to see them through to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2009.
The fact that their opponent in that game is Honduras is sufficient to send chills up the spine of any longtime fan. However, the youthful, free-flowing Canadian side we’ve seen so far at this Gold Cup is unlike any other in recent memory.
Meet the new guys
In the tournament opener against French Guiana, six players were making their first-ever Gold Cup starts for Canada. On Tuesday against Costa Rica, three more—Sam Adekugbe, Mark-Anthony Kaye and Anthony Jackson-Hamel—followed suit. In fact, Kaye and Adekugbe were making their first senior-team starts, period.
Zambrano spoke before the tournament of using the Gold Cup to test his player pool and give opportunities to new players—and it’s clear he meant it. Against Costa Rica, seven of the 11 starters had 10 or fewer caps. What’s more is that Zambrano has used 18 of the 23 players on his roster through just two games.
The end result has been a bit disjointed at times, as players acclimate to one another, but it’s also provided the space for youngsters like Davies, Jackson-Hamel and Lucas Cavallini to show what they can bring to the table.
Another save for Milan
While the temptation is to salivate over what the future may hold for Canada in a three-striker system under Zambrano—especially once guys like Cyle Larin and Tesho Akindele are added back into the mix—let’s not gloss over the fact that this game could have ended much differently.
As he has been called upon to do many times in his national-team career, Milan Borjan dragged Canada to a result they likely wouldn’t have otherwise gotten by making numerous remarkable saves at crucial times. It was an especially notable performance given that the 29-year-old goalkeeper’s right eye was basically swollen shut following a clash with teammate Samuel Piette during the French Guiana game just four days earlier.
With a spot in the knockout stages almost-but-not-quite-assured, it will be interesting to see how Zambrano approaches his lineup against Honduras. Dejan Jakovic, 31, and Steven Vitoria, 30, have played the full 90 alongside each other in central defense in two straight games, while Scott Arfield and Junior Hoilett have run themselves into the ground as linchpins of Canada’s attack. Which are due for rest?
On the attack-minded side of things, Zambrano has fresh options: Raheem Edwards and Jonathan Osorio have yet to feature in this competition, while Russell Teibert appeared only as a substitute against French Guiana.
Given Zambrano’s commitment to squad rotation thus far, Friday’s game against Honduras could feature a few more young players staking their claim on a spot in the manager’s long-term plans—and thus far at this Gold Cup, that’s worked out pretty well for Canada.