Meet Bobby Smyrniotis: The tactics-first coach the Canada men’s team needs?

The sun is creeping over the east stand of Tim Hortons Field just after 8:30 a.m. in Hamilton, Ontario. Bobby Smyrniotis crouches down, folds his hands together and begins watching his Forge FC players through a training session with the same intent of a hawk circling above a mouse.

Smyrniotis remains still, quiet, without even taking a minute to scratch his lengthy, scraggly gray beard. He wants his players to learn by doing and doesn’t inject sessions with superfluous motivation. He believes his players have attained necessary tactical instruction in pre-session meetings and in debrief sessions after games.

And Smyrniotis’s track record – three Canadian Premier League titles in four seasons of the league’s existence – suggest he’s onto something.

 The 44-year-old only raises his gruff, hardened voice when a drill is drawing to a close.

“What are you being nice for?” he shouts at a player when they don’t make the most of an opportunity with the ball close to goal.

The player nods.

“(Smyrniotis) absolutely isn’t a ‘rah rah’ guy,” Forge captain and former Canada men’s national team midfielder Kyle Bekker said. “He’s a man of few words, but what he says matters. You’re not going to get a bunch of fluff, which is very refreshing.”

Since previous Canada head coach John Herdman left the team for Toronto FC, Smyrniotis’ brand of tactics-first coaching could be used as a refresher within Canada Soccer, an organization that desperately needs just that.

Multiple sources with knowledge of the circumstances told The Athletic Smyrniotis was one of the finalists for the Toronto FC head coach job before Herdman was hired, and that Smyrniotis was also in contention for CF Montreal’s head coach job before Hernan Losada was hired before the 2023 season. 

Herdman did important work to instill a culture of self-belief in the team, convincing them of their ability to qualify for every World Cup – matched of course with the world-class talent Canada now has in their lineup.

And yet once the men’s team reached new heights, their tactical deficiencies were exposed. Errors in how the team were set up in midfield against Croatia in the 2022 World Cup saw them give up a 1-0 lead before being eliminated in a humbling 4-1 loss. This June, in the Nations League final against the United States, Canada were outclassed and looked aimless in possession in another humbling defeat, this time 2-0.

Many of the team’s mainstays are being coached by managers who have won league titles or cups in Europe, such as Thomas Tuchel, Brendan Rogers and Paulo Fonseca. 

Multiple sources suggested Canada Soccer senior leadership realized this summer that they must focus on hiring a coach who can challenge the team’s best players tactically the way they are challenged in Europe.

On Wednesday, Canada Soccer revealed they had hired global consulting firm Korn Ferry to lead the search for their next general secretary. They are expected to announce the hire before the end of the year. And crucially, it will be that general secretary who will hire the next men’s team coach.

Perhaps the next general secretary looks abroad and swings for an established coach or assistant with World Cup experience. Or perhaps the same organization which believes they can develop quality players in Canada also believes they can develop leading coaches.

So is it possible the next head coach is right underneath their noses?

Canada’s men’s team has not had a full-time Canadian head coach since Dale Mitchell was fired in 2009. Yet with the opportunities provided to Canadian coaches in the CPL and with learning experiences afforded to those coaches at bigger clubs around the world, that could soon change. 

Smyrniotis may be the antithesis to Herdman in many ways. Is that what the men’s national team needs? 

“Bobby sees the game differently,” Canada forward and record scorer Cyle Larin told The Athletic via text. “In my eyes, he is the best Canadian coach.”

Herdman’s charm was supplemented by a disarming smile and a perfectly coiffed haircut. But Smyrniotis’ unruly beard will often hide any smile he does crack. He’s less of a charismatic motivational speaker who can deliver TED Talks, and more of the brusque touchline figure onlookers eye up curiously. 

No swords or rousing dressing room speeches. He’s a fairly boring figure in front of the cameras who would rather have the emphasis on his players’ abilities.

“You need to be quick and concise,” Smyrniotis said of communicating with players. “That’s how the game is tactically: you have to shift things. I don’t care if you’re a five-year-old or 45-year-old, you don’t like to sit there and listen to somebody talk to you for five minutes.”

“And that keeps you engaged,” Bekker said. “It allows guys to adapt and it forces players to communicate with each other. When he does speak, it means a lot more. It’s going to move a lot more weight.”

You get the sense Smyrniotis would rather deliver gruff assessments about a player backed up by his experiences than try to consciously shape a team’s “culture.” Because it’s experience that Smyrniotis has: after completing his master’s degree in sports management, he went abroad to begin his career coaching in Olympiacos’ academy system. Injecting young players with tactical know-how suited him well. When he returned to Canada he put his education and recent experience to use, co-founding Sigma FC, a regular producer of talent. Consider the players he’s worked with in his career as head coach of noted Canadian academy Sigma FC from 2005 to 2018: Cyle Larin, Tajon Buchanan and Richie Laryea. All three could be starters for Canada at the 2026 World Cup. 

Beyond his three CPL titles, he prepared a young Forge team to venture into an unfamiliar environment and find success. Forge’s surprising run to the 2021 CONCACAF League semi-finals, where they defeated teams from El Salvador, Panama and Costa Rica in just their third season of existence, speaks both to Smyrniotis’ tactical acumen and his ability to instill confidence in a young group. Any Canadian men’s national team head coach will be expected to win in hostile Central American environments, which Smyrniotis has done. 

He did so by communicating a simple message to his players: Embrace the moment. Most players get to play these kinds of continental games once in their career.

He wants to pull players aside whenever possible to learn more about their personal lives and keep the lines of communication open. During training sessions, as games inch closer, he rarely works with his starting XI. Instead, he focuses on his bench players so they understand they have his support.

“If you have them engaged every week, then they’re going to be prepared to perform. Otherwise, we just expect them to do it? And then, maybe we put the blame on them when the blame should be on us as coaches,” Smyrniotis said.

Most importantly, he wants his players to fit into a tactical approach that has led to impressive results.

“I like to entertain the crowd,” Smyrniotis said with a rare smile. “I don’t like random football.”

Forge has consistently suffocated opponents while maintaining possession, not being afraid to shift formations from a 3-4-3 to a 4-3-3.

“His teams always play an attractive brand and are tactically very astute,” Cavalry FC head coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr. said of Smyrniotis. “What’s special about them is they know how to mix things up when they need to.”

Smyrniotis doesn’t take influence from specific managers, but from ideologies. Every offseason he visits different clubs as an apprentice, studying the methods at Ajax Amsterdam, Club Brugge, RCD Mallorca and last offseason, Nottingham Forest.

His short-term goal? Instilling best practices from abroad into Forge.

He wants his players not “stuck to a position.”

“I like ‘total football,’” Smyrniotis said with a sly grin. “It’s counter-pressing, it’s being high up on the field, it’s wanting the ball back as quickly as possible. A hunger to want the ball.

But zoom out, and Smyrniotis has a broader long-term goal: he wants to create a possession-heavy culture of players in Canada who can “assert themselves” and have more tactical know-how than in previous generations.

“You look at a country like Belgium who – if you go back to the ‘90s – didn’t have a football philosophy,” he said. “You see when they implemented that, what type of a big change it made. That always resonated with me, looking at what we’re doing in Canada. We haven’t had a way of doing things tactically as a country. But we’ve got players, we’ve got all the ability.”

Smyrniotis’ detractors will point to his lack of head coaching experience at long-standing leagues. The jump from the CPL to the national team is a wide one. Current men’s team interim head coach Mauro Biello, who was an assistant under Herdman since 2018, will and should garner interest for the position, of course.

Still, Smyrniotis’ history of developing players within Canadian soccer should not go overlooked. Larin and Buchanan have not enjoyed the necessary level of consistency with the national team that’s required of them, and Smyrniotis could help them find that consistency.

At his best, Larin can overpower defenders and score with regularity. The enigmatic striker fired home eight goals in just 19 appearances during a loan spell to La Liga side Real Valladolid last season. But at the World Cup, Larin led Canada in shots on target per 90 minutes (0.66) and finished without a goal.

Having a Larin whisperer – someone who has worked intimately with him to help unlock his potential – could be part of the team contending for a knockout-round spot in 2026.

“It’s about him understanding that he has to work there and have patience,” Smyrniotis told The Athletic about Larin in 2022. “What you control is what you do in training. You’ve got to control your own destiny. And that’s something he’s learned to control.”

But whoever takes over the men’s national team would not be hired to develop players. The gig is to corral the most talented group of players in the program’s history and push them to the next level of their potential: beating world-class teams outside of CONCACAF.

Smyrniotis won’t run from the fact that a new challenge would suit him just fine.

“You always push yourself to be better each and every day for something else,” he said. “I think if you don’t think that… you’re going to stagnate.

As 2026 rolls closer, there will be a continued emphasis – tangible or not – on how to continue to grow the game in Canada.

Smyrniotis is part of that growth, and wants to play a role in furthering the sport’s evolution.

“The Canadian team is a fantastic prospect,” Smyrniotis said. “They’ve reached some very good heights, but I think there’s a lot more growth to be had in the group the way it is.”

(Photo: Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images)

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