Octavio Zambrano was the second head coach in LA Galaxy history, replacing Lothar Osiander during the 1997 season. And like a few other Latin American managers in MLS, his story was one of being familiar with the sport throughout the Americas.
Zambrano was born in Ecuador in 1958 and made his debut as a player with UD Valdez, a now-defunct club in Ecuador that had its heyday while he was around.
The young man emigrated to the United States in 1980, attending Chapman University and competing on the college’s soccer team. Like pretty much all players of his era in the United States, he played indoor soccer, with the LA Lazers, in the 1980s.
Zambrano’s ties with Los Angeles ran deep over the intervening 17 years, as he got into coaching by serving as an assistant for a succession of indoor and outdoor sides locally, and even had a beat on what was happening in the youth scene at the time. So when he was hired as an assistant for the Galaxy in 1996 under Osiander, it was a logical move. Osiander had the experience managing the U.S. Men’s National Team, while Zambrano had the local ties with experience in South American soccer, too.
The first Galaxy season was fairly successful, with the club reaching the inaugural MLS Cup final, although they lost in the title game to D.C. United. The start of the 1997 season didn’t go well, however, and Osiander was fired after posting a 3W-9L record. The young Zambrano (not yet 40) got the nod, and the job in large part launched the rest of his coaching career.
LA were 13W-7L under Zambrano in the rest of 1997 and finished second in the West, heading to the playoffs once again. This time, they were shut out in the first round by Dallas, and couldn’t return to MLS Cup again.
That disappointment seemed to fuel LA in 1998, when they posted in some regards what remains the best MLS regular season in league history. Scoring a whopping 85 goals in 32 games, which remains a league record, the Galaxy easily posted the top record in the league and had the best defense, becoming a complete juggernaut across the length of the season.
But they couldn’t get through the playoffs, falling in the Western Conference Finals to the Chicago Fire, and failed to execute a truly outstanding season.
Dan Loney makes a case why it didn’t all come together in the end for the ‘98 Galaxy:
I used to think in 1998 we put marketing over performance, but in retrospect it was substandard coaching. It was up to Octavio to make Hermosillo work. Mathis didn't start in the final playoff game. We also had a losing record against all three other playoff teams.— Dan Loney (@DanLoney36) April 13, 2020
Much like the previous coach, Zambrano got to start the next season, but a 2W-3L start was apparently a sign of doom and he was gone, replaced in short order by Sigi Schmid, and the rest is history, as they say.
Zambrano’s career was far from over, however, and he moved on to coach the MetroStars in 2000, staying there until 2002. His stint there was much the same, ups and downs, and while he got a little more time, he ultimately couldn’t lead that club to a title.
After a few years out of coaching, he got back into it in a far-flung locale, managing a now-defunct club in Moldova starting in 2006 and then to a Hungarian club in 2008. The latter club had to be managed under a joint managership because Zambrano didn’t have his European coaching badges and was therefore not technically allowed to manage the team himself.
He returned to MLS in 2010, where he served as an assistant coach at the Kansas City Wizards/Sporting Kansas City for two seasons. Then he went back home, so to speak, jumping in the club carousel in South America, managing Deportivo Pereira in the Colombian second tier, breaking a points record one season but failing to earn promotion that campaign.
Then he really went home, managing Ecuadorian outfit El Nacional and stayed for about year, saving them from relegation. The following year he went to fellow Ecuadorian side Delfín, before returning to North America, where he was appointed to his first national team job, managing Canada, in May 2017.
He helped Canada return to respectability, as they had their best Concacaf Gold Cup performance in about a decade in 2017, where they advanced to the knockouts. But his tenure ended in a hurry, in Jan. 2018, with the manager reportedly not seeing eye-to-eye with Canada Soccer, so the federation opted to move on, and replaced him with John Herdman.
Zambrano bounced back quickly, moving to Colombian giant Deportivo Independiente Medellin in 2018, where they lost in the league final his first season. He then moved to fellow Colombian outfit Deportivo Pasto for a short stint last year.
Now 62, Zambrano is active on Twitter, posting in Spanish and English regularly, and while he’s far from the only person of his generation to have the breadth of knowledge around the world — Juan Carlos Osorio is but one contemporary with a similar resumé, in MLS and abroad — I think MLS failed to really make full use of the knowledge base of managers like Zambrano for a long time. In recent years, with the success of Oscar Pareja and to an extent, Wilmer Cabrera, that tide seems to be turning, but we still seem to be at a point where the English-speaking and Spanish-speaking soccer worlds remain at a remove from each other. Pioneers like Zambrano helped to lay the groundwork to tie those worlds closer together, but there is still much to be done in the sport here in the United States to this day. Perhaps that — and the stellar 1998 regular season — will be Zambrano’s main legacy with the LA Galaxy.
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