De Guzman looks to give back to the game with new League1 Ontario team

Mexico's Rafael Marquez, left, passes the ball past Canada's Julian de Guzman during first half FIFA World Cup qualifying soccer action in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday March 25, 2016. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

Julian de Guzman's soccer career has seen him transition from star player to coach, general manager and TV pundit.

And now the former Canadian international is an owner, looking to build Simcoe County Rovers FC of League1 Ontario from the ground up as president and managing partner.

Canadian forward Cyle Larin, who plays in Turkey for Besiktas, is also part of the ownership group along with CEO Peter Raco and COO Will Devellis. They acquired the franchise licence previously held by Aurora FC.

The club is scheduled to join the semi-pro league in 2022, with men's and women's teams playing home matches in Barrie, Ont. The club has yet to announce a specific venue.

Founded in 2014, League1 Ontario has 22 teams in the men's Premier Division and 15 in the women's Premier Division.

De Guzman, Raco and Devellis had been involved with another Barrie side, 1812 FC, in the league but elected to go their own way.

"The more conversations that we had, the more we had a chance to learn about each other. It seemed like all three of us had the same view and visions of how it should be versus what we initially recognized," de Guzman said.

De Guzman, 40, brings a top-drawer resume to his role as owner. Tied with Atiba Hutchinson for most caps (89) by a Canadian male, he played professionally in France, Germany, Spain, Greece and MLS before wrapping up his career with the Ottawa Fury.

He announced his retirement in January 2017, saying "Football has been the love of my life. It has given me a ticket to explore many countries, different cultures."

He went on to serve as coach and GM of the now-defunct Fury.

De Guzman said Larin, like him, has long wanted to give back to the game. A native of Brampton, Ont., Larin played for Sigma FC in League1 prior to making his name in MLS with Orlando.

De Guzman hopes to bring other players on board, pointing to the example of England's Salford FC. The club, which plays in England's fourth-tier League Two, is owned by Project 92 Limited whose major shareholders are former Manchester United stars David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, brothers Gary and Phil Neville, and Paul Scholes as well as Singapore entrepreneur Peter Lim.

MLS's Los Angeles FC and the NWSL's Angel City FC, which is slated to begin play next year, also boast a who's who of owners. Former U.S. star Mia Hamm Garciaparra is involved with both while former players Lorrie Fair Allen, Shannon Boxx, Rachel Buehler, Amanda Cromwell, Joy Fawcett, Julie Foudy, Lauren Holiday, Tisha Venturi Hoch, Angela Hucles, Shannon MacMillan, Ronnie Fair Sullins, Abby Wambach and Saskia Webber are among the Angel City partners.

"I figured, you know what, let's kind of do the same thing, but on the Canadian side and a Canadian version. That's exactly how we came together. That's why Cyle's involved," said de Guzman. "There will be more familiar names that come on board."

"At the end of the day we would love to see this grow into something professional," he added. "And CPL is definitely the direction we want to aim for, down the road ? But that's going to take a lot in terms of the success of the performance of the team, the support, working with the community."

He cites Halifax's HFX Wanderers FC as a Canadian Premier League model, with "exciting" fan backing and "probably the best environment in the whole league."

"If we could create something like that at a League1 level, I'm pretty sure someone's going to come knocking at our door and say 'Hey, let's grow this to a higher level. Let's get this somewhere on a professional, bigger stage."'

De Guzman was 16 when he left Canada to pursue his soccer dream, first in France with Marseille and then Germany with FC Saarbrucken. He sees League1 as a soccer stepping-stone and Barrie a community on the rise.

Simcoe has already recruited the Athlete Institute in Orangeville, Barrie Soccer Club and Aurora FC as reserve teams, to help develop talent.

Former Canadian youth international Victor Oppong, who played with de Guzman, has been named the club's first GM and head coach on the men's side. Derek O'Keeffe, former head coach of League1's Aurora FC, will serve as technical director and assistant coach. Audra Sherman and David Monsalve will lead the women's side.

Sherman is former director and head coach of the Ottawa Fury's elite girls academy. Monsalve is a former Canadian international goalkeeper who also worked with de Guzman in Ottawa.

Electric City FC, representing Peterborough, is also coming to League1 in 2022 after acquiring the licence previously held by Toronto Skillz FC. And Pickering FC, which sat out the 2021 season, returns next year under new ownership.

De Guzman is enjoying his current TV role with TSN, keeping his eye on everything from the current success of the men's national team to Toronto FC's failed MLS season.

"I've had some conversations with some of those guys on the national team who play for TFC and it's like night and day when they go from country to club," he said. "It's just unfortunate the way things have been with TFC. But hopefully it's eye-opening and hopefully they can rectify it and address the issues that needed to be sorted out for them to be back on that trophy-winning stage that they were (on) once."

TV and Simcoe County aren't the only things keeping de Guzman busy.

He's a family man, with children aged one and three at home in Ottawa, as well as a 13- and 16-year-old in Germany from a previous relationship.

De Guzman is also involved with a new soccer facility in Ottawa's east end, with plans calling for FIFA-sized artificial turf field with lights and a grass field to match. It has been dubbed Julian de Guzman Park.

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