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Red Bull Arena opens 2017 Gold Cup with a win for Octavio Zambrano

A memorable doubleheader of international soccer in Harrison was most memorable for the chance to catch up with a former MetroStars manager.

MLS: Chicago Fire at New York Red Bulls
Red Bull Arena opened the Gold Cup with Group A Matches
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

It was a fantastic Friday at Red Bull Arena as Harrison’s Cathedral of Football hosted the first two matches of the group stage of the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Group A was on display on July 7th, starting with Canada facing French Guiana, followed the by Central American heavyweight clash between Costa Rica and Honduras.

For Canada, opening the tournament against a relatively unknown Caribbean team raised the unpleasant memory of the 2013 Gold Cup, when the North American side was downed by a stoppage-time rocket from Martinique’s Fabrice Reuperne.

It marked the start of a disappointing competition that saw Canada finish bottom of its group with one point and zero goals scored.

French Guiana is not Martinique and 2017 is not 2013, but there was still a sense that past failures were hanging over this match for the Canadians. It was surely a relief, therefore, when Dejan Jakovic opened the scoring and Scott Arfield added a second before half-time. Canada carried a 2-0 lead into half-time and Alphonso Davies made it 3-0 in the 60th minute.

French Guiana did not lie down, however, and seemed to draw strength from the arrival of heavy rain in Harrison. The Canadians conceded two goals in two minutes, as Roy Contout and Sloan Privat sent the match into its final stages with both sides having all to play for. But Davies had the final say, adding Canada’s fourth goal in the 85th minute to ensure his team would start this year’s Gold Cup with three points.

All six goals were scored in front of a mostly empty stadium, but the seats soon filled up for the night’s main event. Costa Rica and Honduras drew a capacity crowd to Red Bull Arena, and kept the full house entertained with chances for both sides throughout.

In the end, Marco Urena’s first-half tally was the game’s only goal. His strike sent the Costa Rican side of the Arena into a frenzy, and set the Costa Rica Football Federation officials in the south end of the press box into a heartfelt celebration.

The Gold Cup’s significance is often debated, but this match at least was clearly important to both teams and the fans in attendance. The players nearly carried a fight down the tunnel at half-time, as if to illustrate their commitment to their respective causes.

For me there was one special person among the 25,000 or so at the Arena that I was particularly pleased to see, and he wasn’t part of the big game that most of the crowd came to Harrison to see.

Former MetroStars manager and current Canada head coach, Octavio Zambrano is one of three ex-coaches of the twice-named MLS team that currently calls Red Bull Arena its home ground. Curiously, all three are collectively now in charge of CONCACAF’s North American zone Gold Cup contenders: Zambrano is helming Canada; Juan Carlos Osorio is managing Mexico; Bruce Arena has control of USMNT.

Zambrano presided over the arrivals of Clint Mathis, Daniel Hernandez, Steve Jolley, and the ill-fated stint in MLS of superstar Lothar Matthaus. He led the team to the semifinals of the MLS Cup playoffs, and recorded 41 regular-season wins during his tenure - the club record for league wins by a head coach until Jesse Marsch recorded his 42nd regular-season victory as RBNY’s coach with the team’s 3-2 win over New England Revolution.

And it was that record that Zambrano referenced immediately when I asked him about the coincidence of former MetroStars coaches at this Gold Cup: “Well, I have the best win record out of the three,” he said.

Looking ahead, Zambrano is hopeful he’ll get the chance to renew his acquaintance with both men. “Juan Carlos Osorio is a great friend and a colleague, I communicate with him often. I feel for him [Osorio was suspended by FIFA after he bumped the fourth official in the third-place match of the FIFA Confederations Cup and is banned for six games, which means he will be off the sidelines for the Gold Cup] as he is an extraordinary coach.”

“Bruce - I respect him tremendously. He has demonstrated what a manager can do, especially for the United States and I would love to match wits with the both of them.”

But Zambrano is special to me because of one brief encounter between us back in 2001. The MetroStars held a season-preview fan party at Nike Town in Midtown Manhattan, and I went along with a tape recorder and a microphone to see if I could ask a few questions of the players and the head coach. This was before I started to cover the team regularly, and I suppose you never forget your first time.

I didn’t so much ask Zambrano a question that day as simply relate a fact: “Congratulations, Mr. Zambrano, you are the first coach to stay consecutive seasons” - he was indeed the first head coach the club had held on to for more than one campaign. He laughed. “We are breaking new ground,” he replied.

That was it. Just a glancing exchange, one of many snippets of chit-chat a head coach must submit to as part of his job. Sixteen years later, at Red Bull Arena, Zambrano was preparing for interviews with Canadian television prior to fielding questions from the rest of the media scrum. I passed the cameraman and shouted over to Zambrano: “We are breaking new ground!”

He turned his head and smiled, like the words were as clear in his head as if we’d spoken just the day before. And after his press duties were fulfilled, he saw me again, shook my hand, and said, “I remember that day.”

His Metro days are long over, but Octavio Zambrano has not forgotten them - even the brief exchanges with novice reporters at promotional events in 2001. Once a Metro, always a Metro.