Who is Octavio Zambrano? — UPDATED

Photo: Courtesy of MLS

UPDATE: After this column was published on Sept. 30, Octavio Zambrano contacted me to fill in some of the gaps I mentioned in the piece. Had I been able to reach him in Ecuador before the post was published, such material would have been published as part of the column. After all, the headline of the column was “Who is Octavio Zambrano?” and it had more questions than answers. Rather than write a separate new column, I chose to update the original.

The original text of the column remains below. Updates have been added on Oct. 21 and italicized.

Octavio Zambrano looks set to be named as Philadelphia Union’s first sporting director, according to a report published Tuesday by Empire of Soccer.

The Union denied Tuesday’s report, telling CBS and PSP contributor Kevin Kinkead, “Any report regarding the decision of a sporting director is not true.”

Perhaps, but treat the report as credible at least insofar that Zambrano is a finalist for the job. (And no, not merely because it’s yet another Union press leak to New York soccer publications.) PSP heard recently from a reliable source that the Union narrowed their search to a few candidates. The only one whose name we had was that of Zambrano.

So who is Octavio Zambrano? And is this a good move? It’s easier to answer the first question than the second.

Zambrano’s track record, on paper

Zambrano, 57, currently ranks second all-time in winning percentage among MLS head coaches. The Ecuador native coached the Los Angeles Galaxy from 1997 through 1999, notably leading the 1998 club, one of the highest scoring in MLS history, to the final of what is now the CONCACAF Champions League. He was fired in 1999 and then resurfaced a year later as head coach for the New York MetroStars (now the Red Bulls), and his team earned a runner-up to the Supporters Shield. He was dismissed in 2002 after the club missed the playoffs.

After that firing, Zambrano couldn’t find another coaching job until 2006, at which point he set out for one of Europe’s smallest countries to coach a club in Moldova’s league for two seasons.

The story of how Zambrano ended up in tiny Moldova, of all places, is pretty interesting. Zambrano said he had been invited by a Russian agent in New York City to meet with the president of a Ukrainian club, and he had planned to meet with them after the 2006 World Cup for meetings. While they waited, the same agent indicated a Russian owner of a team in the breakaway Moldova region of Transnistria was interested in him for a job there. They flew him to Moldova. “I accepted to go and really found the whole place fascinating,” Zambrano said.  “The region where Tiligul FC was based is a Russian enclave within Moldavia, and many of the cold war remnants were still present. The team had is own stadium, good facilities and good players. So I accepted.”

He then moved onto a second division Hungarian club for a year, briefly worked for FIFA, and then took a job as an assistant with Sporting Kansas City in 2009. He left there in 2011 to coach a second division club in Colombia, but despite an impressive run, he parted ways with the club and coached a season in Ecuador with El Nacional. (As Zambrano noted, the Hungarian and Colombian teams had been fresh off relegation when he joined them.) That brings us largely to the present.

Last year, Zambrano went public with his desire to return to MLS and began putting out feelers. He said he interviewed for the FC Dallas head coaching job that Oscar Pareja was hired for last year. Apparently, Philadelphia was in play too.

Zambrano’s links to the Union

Shortly after Zambrano was named MetroStars head coach after the 1999 season, the club hired a new team president and general manager. That man was Nick Sakiewicz, current chief executive for Philadelphia Union. Sakiewicz has since been fired.

Sakiewicz kept Zambrano on as head coach with the MetroStars and, according to Zambrano, gave him full control over player personnel. Zambrano has praised Sakiewicz for keeping him in the role, despite not being the general manager who hired him as coach. But Sakiewicz was also in charge when Zambrano was fired from that job.

Zambrano and Sakiewicz are friends, dating back to their MetroStars days, and he does worry that link will be used against him now that Sakiewicz has been fired. “Nick was/is a friend,” Zambrano said, “but that should not play into the decision-making process when deciding about whom is the most capable person to perform such an important task.”

Why has Zambrano been out of MLS so long?

Zambrano has an excellent MLS record, and his 1998 Los Angeles club was one of the league’s highest scoring and most entertaining clubs in league history. In Colombia, he appears to have been a massive success with his club before being inexplicably marginalized.

That marginalization has some context I didn’t highlight in my original column: That former club, Deportivo Pereira is in extreme financial difficulty and has faced liquidation. Zambrano said this played a part in ending his role there.

“As a coach you have to prepare in every possible way you know to defeat an opponent, but when the player you coach has not gotten paid for a three months and has mounting problems at home on that account, it’s very difficult to keep the group together and expect high performance,” Zambrano said. “Deportivo Pereira [is] in the process of Liquidation right now, it’s the first time that a Colombian club was taken away from its owners and placed in the hands of a court appointed individual to try to save the club.  The financial crisis of the club had a lot to do with our inability to round up a historic regular season and come back to the first division. Sad but true.

All this begs the question:

Why did nobody in MLS want him for years? Why couldn’t a bilingual coach with a successful MLS track record find another head coaching job in the league?

Then-ESPN columnist Ives Galarcep explored that question back in 2006 in a must-read piece. According to Galarcep, Sakiewicz said, “It’s pretty mind boggling to think that a coach with his record can’t even get an interview. We parted ways in 2002 because the team needed a change, not because Octavio wasn’t a good coach.”

At the time, Zambrano said he feared he was blackballed by MLS after fighting AEG — then the owner of nearly half the league’s teams, including the MetroStars — for salary he was owed on the remaining year of his contract after he was fired.

But there is another suspicion that may have dogged Zambrano and will sound disturbingly familiar to Union fans. According to Galarcep, there were “persistent rumors that Zambrano accepted payments from players he brought to the MetroStars. The rumors, which have never been proven, have circulated in MLS circles and could have left some teams wondering whether Zambrano could be trusted.” Zambrano denied the claims, as did Sakiewicz.

That sounds awfully similar to the claims that former Union manager Peter Nowak tried to get a cut of transfer fees. However, keep in mind there were more than just rumors in Nowak’s case. There were also legal documents and a very well-publicized (but no longer available online) interview with Michael Orozco Fiscal by Fox Sports.

I asked Zambrano about the rumors regarding questionable transfers, and initially, he suggested that I speak to some of his references — Sporting Kansas City head coach Peter Vermes, Toronto assistant coach Dan Calichman (his former captain of the LA Galaxy), U.S. U20 national team coach Tab Ramos (his captain with New York). But I knew that wasn’t good enough, because the Nowak allegations are such that Zambrano really needed to address the questions about him. I pressed for more details on what he thought was behind the rumors, explaining that this was a very relevant issue for Philadelphia Union, and once he conceded to tell me, he had a pretty interesting story — interesting enough that it’s worth recounting word for word:

It is the kind of thing that, the more you try to address it (those rumors), the more you give credence to them.  So I am ambivalent to talk about it, but in an effort to set the record straight I will state the following:

“In 1993-94, I assembled a team of mostly immigrants from the LA area called the LA Salsa U-19. We faced discrimination from the start; [we] applied and were denied entry into the best youth league in Southern California (CYSA South)but everyone wanted to play us because we had won the most important pre-season tournaments.  We found a kindred spirit (LA 94 Futbol Foundation), to sponsor the creation of the Super League U-19, all games played at Cal State Fullertonacademies like The Nomads, Pateadores etc., the elite teams from Santa Barbara to San Diego followed us, it was the first truly Elite U-19 SoCal League.  As you can imagine, this angered a lot of people involved in “main stream” youth soccer circles in Southern California. We became Champions and went on to play the McGuire Cup finals, then the Premier Youth National Soccer Tournament. The LA Salsa U-19 was invited by my friend and colleague German International Wolfgang Suhnholz to the Austin Capitals College Coaches Classic in Austin Texas. We won that tournament, and many of our players were targeted by college coaches for recruitment; however, it was clear that none of them had the academic grades to receive a scholarship.

“When the MLS, then in its inception, was just starting to be formed, the best players from the team approached me to take them to MLS and help them get into the league.  I agreed and took the players to the league offices, then in downtown Los Angeles, and met for the first time with Sunil Gulati, Ivan Gazidis … and Todd Durbin, to see if they could be included in the original combine and subsequent draft.  This meeting took place BEFORE I was offered the assistant coaching position with the LA Galaxy.  When I became part of the LA Galaxy coaching staff, I promptly informed the players that I could no longer advise them because of my newly acquired position.  At no time did I ever ask for nor receive a penny from them or the league, nor did I ever speak or negotiate on their behalf during their brief MLS careers.  I can not stop disgruntled players and/or coaches form twisting things and trying to blemish my reputation using baseless accusations, throwing mud at me at hoping that it sticks. I was the first Latin American head coach in the MLS with undeniable success and there was a fair amount of envy from people that saw this as an opportunity they wanted for themselves, and as I said before, rumors seem to take on a life of their own and are obviously repeated by people with a grudge.”

At least one prominent former player has also slammed Zambrano’s coaching ability. Former all-star MetroStars goalkeeper Mike Amman criticized Kansas City for hiring Zambrano in 2009 and then recounted the following story about a game during Zambrano’s tenure as a means of explaining his criticism:

“Quick story, in LA to play Galaxy. Day before game, OZ tells Peter Villegas to man mark [Mauricio] Cienfuegos. We ask who is going to play wide right in mid? OZ says don’t worry about it because they won’t attack that side if we shut down Cien. Guess he forgot that Greg Vanney was left back and would destroy us. Sure enough, Vanney got the ball for the first 30 minutes at the Rose Bowl all alone. Thank god the players made the adjustment on the field and told Peter just to go back wide right. OZ never even knew. One of many, but you would have loved being in the locker room. He proved that good players can win games for a team, not necessarily the coaching.”

Zambrano responds: “Mike Amman is a great guy, but could never understand why I decided to give the starting goalkeeper job to Timmy Howard, by then, better, fitter (Mike was coming back from [injury]and much younger than him and did not want to be relegated to a substitute role. I traded him due to salary cup constraints and he never wanted to speak to me again. The No. 1 job of a coach is to make decisions, and the immediate thought that follows is whether those decisions are for the benefit of the team, if the answer is yes, then you must act.  You can’t always be right, but you have to be honest with everyone and more than anyone, yourself.

Are those questions about Zambrano’s reputation what kept him out of the league? Could be. Don’t know. You’ll have to ask the people doing the hiring.

Would Zambrano be a good hire?

As always, time will tell.*

For those who didn’t follow MLS in those early years of ugly uniforms and silly team names, Zambrano is as unfamiliar as a coach from Germany’s second division. Some skeptics might see Zambrano as a bit of an underwhelming name and little more than Sakiewicz drawing on his personal network after a long, fruitless search. But Zambrano has a track record to evaluate.

On one hand, Zambrano was one of MLS’s most successful head coaches in terms of actually winning games. He won in Colombia. He has broad experience. He speaks English and Spanish. He’s probably familiar with MLS rules. He also likely has good connections and knowledge of the game in Ecuador and Colombia, which could lead to the development of a scouting pipeline of good, affordable talent. Further, he has already worked with Sakiewicz, so that should smooth the working relationship.

On the other hand, this is a 57-year-old journeyman veteran of smaller leagues who no other MLS club wanted in leadership for 13 years. He last managed a team in MLS during MLS 1.0 and hasn’t repeated the feat in a significant league since then. (And keep in mind, the quality of play in MLS today is generally considered far superior to the play during Zambrano’s coaching days.)

Zambrano responded to this by saying,I wouldn’t be so quick to categorize the early years of the MLS as soccer ‘1.0.’  As I would match my teams  LA Galaxy 98 and MetroStars 2000 against any of the current top MLS teams, and I truly believe we would come on top more times than not, and playing better football.  Just for kicks, match the rosters and tell me your opinion.”

Now, I wasn’t saying his teams weren’t good. In fact, I had written that his Galaxy team was one of the “most entertaining clubs in league history.” I was talking about the overall quality of play throughout the league.

Still, this seemed like a fun and interesting exercise, so I figured I’d play it out. That 1998 Galaxy roster was stacked with guys like Cobi Jones, Paul Caligiuri, Greg Vanney, Kevin Hartman and others. His MetroStars roster had Tab Ramos, Thomas Dooley, a young Tim Howard, Adolfo Valencia and others.

Further — and this is the real wild card — those rumors about abusive transfer practices hit a particularly sensitive spot in Philadelphia due to the similar claims about Nowak. One would hope the Union have done their due diligence in vetting Zambrano to ensure these claims were not true. If there was any truth to them, that should disqualify Zambrano as a candidate. The Union should want absolutely nothing to do with that. In his defense, we have seen nothing more than one columnist’s reporting of those rumors from unnamed sources, and they remain merely unverified (albeit concerning) rumors until otherwise documented.

Lastly, there is the potential meshing with the current coaching staff. Zambrano was an attack-minded coach. Curtin is defense-minded. They have never worked together, although Curtin played against Zambrano’s New York teams. How would they mesh? Will Zambrano look for players that fit Curtin’s style of play? Or would Curtin adapt to Zambrano’s vision? Would Zambrano have purview over coaching hires, and if so, would he want to retain Curtin?

If Zambrano is the hire, at least we can say it’s an interesting one. Whether interesting translates to good or bad remains to be seen.


  1. Your piece does not give me a great feeling about this potential hire, Dan. Maybe he’s great and overlooked. Or maybe just a Friend Of Sak.

    • Great and overlooked is possible. The biggest limitation of my piece is that I am among those who was not following MLS closely back when he was coaching in MLS. My piece is research-based, not observation-based, and has limitations as a result.

    • I just read Galarcep’s piece (had trouble at first because one of the links to it is broken, Dan, FYI). He certainly seems to think that it was inexplicable. Personally, I am left wondering why the man got fired from 2 MLS teams a year after each had a best-ever season. I know coaching changes can be pretty capricious sometimes, but this guy doesn’t seem to have held any job for more than 3 years. His history is promising, weird, and worrisome all at the same time.

  2. So he has wanted to get another coaching gig in MLS, but hasn’t been able to because he may have had some unsavory transfer dealings and fought with AEG over back pay?

    I’m not sure why would we hire him as our Sporting Director. This feels like a leaked story to get some STH renewals done.

    Why not just hire John Hackworth for the role? He and Albright would be a good combination as their strengths complement each other.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      I have always assumed that nick Sakewicz would not be willing to eat his dish of crow, and that John Hackworth’s heart is in working with players on the field.
      Otherwise he was instantly obvious as the first choice from my limited uninformed outside point of view.

    • Your right, Hack was always a shaky head coach on match day. I have always said that he could be a good technical director, especially with youth….which he did for our national set up for years before he came to the Union and before he started coaching the U-15’s. He’s too docile to be a sporting director with the big boys…….have you ever talked to him or watched him work up close? You have to be a little mean and stand up for yourself in this racket……..I don’t see that out of Hack. Probably a reason he went back to working with the kids.

  3. Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

    MLS 1.0

  4. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Dan, is it a pattern that sporting directors and technical directors take over as the next coach? It happened earlier in Chicago I remember.

    • That’s also how Vermes became SKC’s manager.

    • It happens — I believe that’s how Frank Klopas became Chicago’s coach, for example, but I don’t know if it’s a pattern. I’d have to really examine that to state that it’s a pattern.

      But that thought did occur to me, that Zambrano would be a ready coach in waiting if Curtin failed. And a very interesting one at that.

  5. The Union need some kind of direction so signings fit together. The current lets sign someone people have heard of and figure it out later doesn’t work for a cash strapped club. If this guy can do that then hire him. I’m tired of waiting for this team to act like a professional sports franchise

  6. Coach MIke Christ says:

    I knew Octavio for about 9 years in Southern California. He organized youth soccer clubs at Mission Viejo, Riverside, Moreno Valley, and Alta Loma. He was Rildo Menesas’ assistant for the California Emperors of the A-League in 1990. Octavio has an instinct to build a development system, cultivate players for the current pro-coach, while organizing replacements for his own attack oriented scheme for when he takes over the first team. He organized youth systems for LA Galaxy, and Sporting KC. He probably won’t remember me unless you told him “THE COWBOY from ARLANZA/Riverside” dropped you a line. ‘Tavi’ has the tools to build a successful professional scheme, BUT, during the playoffs, when opponents have a chance to adjust, he stands pat and failed to go through (LA Galaxy, & Metrostars). He would make a brilliant assistant for a knowledgeable tactician, BUT,he has a propensity for ‘turning’ the team for himself.

    • Great information and assessment! Thanks for sharing it.

      Question though: What do you mean by “turning the team for himself”?

  7. Huh- I didn’t think the Union were going to do it. I was preparing for Chris Albright to get the job tomorrow if the U won tonight. Don’t think the Union would leak this the day of the Final- unnecessary distraction- so considering it was leaked to a NY reporter I’d guess it came from Zambrano himself. Something to keep in mind, as I remember a story or 2 about Muelensteen shopping for houses in the Philly area so nothing guaranteed yet. Sounds like they may be further along here and if so I applaud the hire. The accusations are concerning but he doesn’t sound like some Sak crony/stooge. Legitimate outsider with SA connections. Whether he succeeds or not of course remains to be seen. Will just be glad to have someone in that chair finally. Go Union!

  8. I’m completely ok with ANYONE being our GM/Sporting Director at this point – which says a lot of what the Union have NOT done so far… but I digress. In fairness, I don’t know enough (see: anything, really) about Zambrano, but just finally having someone to build the club, and be accountable is a major step. With that said, it bothers me a bit that he couldn’t get back into the league for so long, but it excites me that he is clearly attack minded. Overall, this news is good news, in my opinion.

  9. Everyone say it with me now……..OLD BOY NETWORK!

  10. Old Soccer Coach says:

    If all the qualifications are met and are equal among the competitors, and the relationship is functional, it is one less thing to worry about.

  11. This story breaking today……so Union. If they lose at least they can say, “well we’re working on it”.

  12. I was a STH with the Metrostars and then the Redbulls for 13 years before moving to Philly. I knew and suffered under Sak back when he was with the Metrostars. I remember Zambrano. In those days we had a revolving door for coaches–no one stayed very long.

    Zambrano is here because he is a friend of Sak’s. Period. End of story. If anything good comes of this it is purely by accident. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

  13. Ain't Gonna Be Able To Do It says:

    Any friend of Sack is no friend of our. Hoping that the rumors of Sack finally being sacked are true. He can take Zambrano with him to as we do not want his lakies hanging around. Can we please clean house and bring in competent people to lead our team.

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