In the span of one year, Julian de Guzman went from playing for the Ottawa Fury to running the club.
A year ago, de Guzman, who earned a record 89 caps for the Canadian national team, announced his retirement after a lengthy career, which concluded with two seasons in Ottawa in the North American Soccer League.
Last year, the Fury made a lateral move in joining the second-tier United Soccer League under coach and general manager Paul Dalglish. De Guzman served as assistant coach and assistant GM, but took over both roles on an interim basis when Dalglish quit last summer. With so much change going on, it hardly came as a surprise when the Fury finished the 2017 season with a losing record and failed to make the playoffs.
De Guzman didn’t end up walking away from Ottawa, though. Instead, he was named the club’s GM on a full-time basis just days before Christmas. Nikola Popovic was also announced at the team’s new coach.
Sportsnet chatted one-on-one with the 36-year-old de Guzman about taking over as the Fury’s new GM, his goals for the 2018 USL season, and the growth of the sport in Ottawa.
It’s been a crazy past 12 months for you. Is your head still spinning?
[laughs] If you go back a few years ago, I never would have imagined myself in this position. It was a long-term goal [to get into management] but I didn’t think it would happen this quickly. A year has gone by, and like you said I went from playing, to retirement to GM, so it’s been a very exciting time, and also very educational. For the most part, it’s been a dream come true when I look at from the outside. It’s been great.
You took on the GM duties on a full-time basis, but stepped away as coach. Why? Why didn’t you stay on as coach of the Fury?
It was two things. I learned a lot under [former Fury coach/GM Paul Dalglish], and the responsibilities he had and the time he had to work with, you’re up at seven every morning and you’re walking through your door at home late in the evening, so it’s very long hours. When I was doing it on an interim basis last season, I was super busy and I essentially had no life. It was just ongoing where you are a coach part of the day, and a GM 24 hours a day. Being in those two roles at the same time, it was a lot to handle all at once.
I spoke to ownership in the off-season about how we can make the team as successful as possible, and with that in mind, I said I could really only handle one role, either the GM or the coach. At the same time, Nikola Popovic became available, and he fit that profile of the type of coach we wanted – his philosophy and vision matched mine and the club’s. Getting to know him and seeing what he’s done, it was the best move to bring him aboard as the new coach, which allowed me to focus on the GM duties. I think this was the right fit.
You mentioned Popovic’s vision being aligned to yours and the club’s. What is that vision?
You’ve see the success Toronto FC has had in MLS, and I think it’s important that as one of four professional soccer teams in Canada that we bring success to Canadian soccer in the USL. It’s important that we build on our working relationship with the Montreal Impact – it creates a wonderful opportunity to work with young Canadian players, and help the developmental process in this country.
Nikola has the idea and the strategy of a style of football that I believe in, a style that I played under when I was in Europe. Going forward we want to be a successful team in doing that and changing the football culture in Ottawa.
What did you learn during your time as interim GM and coach that you believe sets you up for success now that you’re Ottawa’s full-time GM?
I think the way I now review and analyze the game and players is very different – it’s not the same now that I’m no longer playing. You have to do serious homework on players based on more than what you see on the pitch, on how you create a cohesive locker room. I think I’ve also learned about the culture of the league and how Ottawa fits into that. There’s a lot of moving parts in place, and it’s important that you create an environment based on relying on people you can trust so you can be successful. I’ve had those types of relationships with coaches and GMs when I was a player, so I think it bodes well. But it’s also an ongoing process; you’re always learning.
The Fury are currently in pre-season training camp. How is the roster looking?
It’s coming along quite nicely. I’m very pleased to have a lot of the players who were involved with us last season. I didn’t want to press the restart button and start with a whole new roster. I think the guys who did well last season and who also fit the type of football we want to play, we’re quite happy with what we have. It’s a strong core of players, they are very familiar with each other and know the expectations of the club, and now the new players that have been added and will be continue to be added will be upgrades to the squad.
Is that why you recently signed Canadians Maxim Tissot and Nana Attakora this off-season?
They are champions. [Editor’s note: Both players won the North American Soccer League’s Soccer Bowl in 2017 as members of the San Francisco Deltas]. I want to set a winning mentality in our dressing room, and they both have good history [of success] to bring to Ottawa. These are guys who I have played with, and I know what their capabilities are. They are proud Canadians and know what it is to play for a Canadian club in an American league. They were successful at San Francisco and are good professionals, so it just made a lot of sense to bring in role models like them.
You previously mentioned about not wanting to hit the restart button, and the importance of keeping core players around. Is that why you re-signed Argentine midfielder Gerardo Bruna?
Exactly. When we first brought him in, he missed most of the 2016 season due to injuries, but he was a key figure for us last year. You saw sparks of what he could do, and how he could change games as he was finding his comfort zone. I think we’re only going to see more from him in 2018, so to bring him back was a big decision, and his style of play fits in with the style we want to play this season. We expect a lot of big things from Bruna.
Obviously, Ottawa wants to rebound after a disappointing 2017 USL campaign. But how much of a priority is the Canadian club championship this season for the Fury?
It’s one of our major goals. We’ve done well in the tournament in the past, and held our own against the MLS teams, having some success at home in the semifinals. Now the next step is to be able to try to get positive results on the road and make it to the final.
You’ve been in Ottawa for several years now. Has the Fury’s imprint on the city’s sporting landscape increased during your time in the nation’s capital?
I think so. Ticket sales have increased, and there’s a good buzz in the city for us. For me, since I’ve been here, the game has continued to grow each year. We’re on the right track; the next step for us is to bring success to the city, and that feeling we had in 2015 [when the Fury reached the NASL Soccer Bowl final]. It’s been two years without any playoffs, so now it’s time to bring that feeling back to the city. You look at what TFC has done, how it’s captured the imagination of Toronto. We want to do the same here in Ottawa.