After spending the first three weeks of the 2017 USL regular season in enemy territory, Ottawa Fury FC now get to play inside the friendly home confines of TD Place.
Saturday afternoon's game will be the team's first home opener since switching from the North American Soccer League to the United Soccer League and affiliating with the Montreal Impact of Major League Soccer.
The team earned its first victory of the season last week, a 1-0 triumph over the Richmond Kickers on a highlight-worthy goal by Steevan Dos Santos.
Still, the Fury had to be satisfied with two close losses in their first two games, falling 1-0 each to the Tampa Bay Rowdies (fellow refugees from the NASL this season) and St. Louis FC.
"I think it's been a really good test for our team and I think now, we've come through that third game where we finally got our first victory, and our first shutout, and I think the confidence is high," said new Fury goalkeeper Callum Irving ahead of practice on Thursday.
"We've really been looking forward to this home opener … I can't really wait to step out onto TD Place in front of some home fans, in front of people who will be cheering for us instead of against us."
Irving is an exciting recruit to the Fury this season after the team lost last season's starting keeper, Romuald Peiser.
Irving spent much of his development in the Vancouver Whitecaps system before choosing to attend the University of Kentucky, earning a record 27 shutouts for the Wildcats.
He made his first appearance for Canada's senior men's team in January in a 4-2 victory over Bermuda.
"Now my focus is to just keep training really hard with the Fury and playing games and hope that it keeps impressing them so I can hopefully keep getting called back for future camps and make my impression," said Irving.
"Growing up, it's something you always look up to. And you look up to guys like Julian [de Guzman] and players who have been encompassed with the national team and just been playing game in, game out, and you hope one day that you can play alongside them."
Assistant coach Julian de Guzman says he sees a lot of potential in the Fury's youthful squad and thinks fans will enjoy the team's identity as their inaugural season in the USL progresses.
"The players are really eager to get out there and demonstrate the quality we have and to even get results," said de Guzman. "We've had a lot of good times here at TD Place ... We've put in a lot of hard work in the pre-season.
"We've had three road trips in the last three weeks. And I think the guys have been able to build a great type of unity and belief throughout the process and we really want to be able to produce something and give something back to the fans."
- Ottawa Fury FC vs Toronto FC II
- Saturday, April 22nd; 2pm
- Stadium at TD Place
Beyond the home opener, de Guzman opened up about making the transition to assistant coach after nearly two decades as a professional player, as well as what's missing from the next generation of Canadian soccer players.
Here's our Q & A with the former star midfielder from MLS and La Liga, a Toronto native who now calls Ottawa home:
Q: It's still pretty fresh, no longer being on the pitch as a player. How is it feeling?
A: It's still a learning process. For me, just adjusting to the idea of coaching and the role I [now] have as opposed to what it was. The last 18 years of my life, it takes time, and I've definitely learned a lot since I've jumped on board with the staff. One thing's for sure: there's a lot of hours put into this on a daily basis. That's another thing, as a player, you come in for three, four, maybe five hours at most, a day, for training. But as a general manager or a coach, you're putting in close to maybe 12 hours. And that 's a new task for myself … And being able to work for a great group of guys is a huge bonus and definitely has a lot to do with my decision in joining the staff and taking this new role.
Q: You're established in Ottawa now. It must be nice to finally be living so close to home [in Toronto].
A: Yes, my mom, my sister, a lot of friends, they come down every so often to visit. It's such an easy trip for them and it's always great to be in touch with your family and friends. And for them, to come here and explore the nation's capital, they always have the same response and feedback. They're surprised and astonished how Ottawa has evolved into such a wonderful city.
Q: Are there coaches you've had over the years you'd like to model yourself after?
A: Most importantly, my mentor right now is [head coach] Paul Dalglish. You know, the guy who definitely has a lot of enriched football culture and history to his name and to his career. And to pass his experience on after coaching for ten years is definitely a huge honour for myself. And obviously, coaches I've had in the past. I like to think back to my experience when I was playing in La Liga and also with the national team. I've had some really good coaches who have taught me a lot … My experience in Spain definitely stays deep within.
Q: As an outgoing member of the national men's team how would you rate what's on the horizon?
A: There has been a lot of improvement, if you look back maybe three, four generations, where there's a big gap. Since the generation of myself, DeRo [Dwayne De Rosario], Atiba [Hutchinson], there hasn't really been anything else to follow that. The closest thing right now, and Canada's biggest hit today, would be Cyle Larin. Someone like him would be the trend-setter of maybe what the golden era was for the Canadian National Team … I think to have a successful generation to achieve accomplishments such as making the World Cup and doing well in the Gold Cup, even having players playing at the highest levels, it's definitely going to take more than just one or two names. It's going to have to take an entire team to move in that direction. The potential is there and the talent has always been there.
Q: Here in Canada, there's an age-old debate about what we're doing wrong in the development of our young soccer players. What are your thoughts on why we continue to lag behind?
A: It's interesting because in the last five years of my career and being involved in the national team I had a chance to really learn about the Canadian product. You know, when I went back to TFC I saw a couple Canadian players who I thought were good enough to even play in La Liga or the top leagues in the world, the EPL. But then, I think it's their surroundings, the way they're brought up, they're spoon-fed. And those are some of the things I tend to forget about the way I brought myself up, how I brought my brother up,
Q: What was unique about your development and the development of your brother Jonathan?
A: My brother [who plays professionally in Italy] and I, there were a lot of sacrifices that we made. We left at a young age. We never had MLS. We never had anything in our backyard on a professional level. It was either you take the scholarship route or you go overseas and leave everything behind and go learn a new culture and try something new.
Q: So what will it take for Canada to finally establish itself at the international level and eventually in the World Cup?
A: I always told myself you have to suffer. You have to struggle. You have to sacrifice a lot of things. I think a lot of times you see talented players coming up through good academies. They have the potential to make it but they just don't have the guts. And that happens too often with our culture of players. And then you see players who are good enough today, who can make it, but they just don't have guts. And I think that's because of the country we come from. It's OK not to make it because they have a good education.
It's OK not to make it because they have the support of their families. You get health care. You get all these wonderful things … And I think people who are just too tied to home, being spoon-fed, I think those are the ones who have a hard time and end up not making it. And I think it definitely kills a generation of talent that could take Canada to great levels. How much patience do these players have at a young age? I mean, you have to remember, we're talking about a lot of millennials who expect quick returns which is not the case in a successful career or anything in life.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.