As a player, Julian de Guzman won a record 89 caps for Canada and lifted the Voyageurs Cup three times in Toronto FC colours.
As GM of Ottawa Fury FC, de Guzman has made a point of showcasing domestic talent.
So the Canadian Championship is indeed something special for the former star midfielder.
Having held on for a 5-4 aggregate win over HFX Wanderers FC of the Canadian Premier League, the Fury host Toronto on Wednesday in the opening leg of the tournament semifinal.
“This is a grand opportunity for many Canadians who follow the sport closely in the country to get a chance to witness Canadians performing at the highest level and doing that against a team like TFC in the Canadian Championship semifinal,” said de Guzman. “That’s something we’re proud of.”
De Guzman, whose playing career also took him to Germany, Greece, Spain and the U.S., says his team can’t wait to test itself again against a MLS side.
“We’re thrilled and motivated,” said the 38-year-old GM.
Toronto has bigger names and paycheques, but is not taking their USL Championship opposition lightly.
“We need to take this game with the utmost intensity and seriousness to get on top of it,” said Toronto coach Greg Vanney.
“They have nothing to lose. (Their) motivation level can be extremely high … We’ve got to match the mentality and then try to be better on the soccer side of things,” he added. “But they’re an organized team. They’re not easy to play against and they’ve got some weapons on the field. In the right moments, they can hurt you too.”
Tournament rules mandate each team fields a minimum of three Canadian starters.
Ottawa coach Nikola Popovic started six Canadians in the second leg against Halifax with goalkeeper Callum Irving, captain Carl Haworth, Thomas Meilleur-Giguere, Nana Attakora, Chris Mannella and Jeremy Gagnon-Lapare all in the starting 11.
Five more — David Monsalve, Jamar Dixon, Protais Mutambala, Cameron Shaw and Maxim Tissot — were on the Fury bench.
Ottawa has plenty of Toronto ties other than de Guzman. Defender Robert Boskovic and forward Aidan Daniels are both on loan to the Fury this season from Toronto. They are eligible to play Wednesday although they have seen limited action this season, with Daniels sidelined for more than a month through injury.
Attakora and Mannella also spent time with TFC.
Toronto has won the Canadian Championship the last three years and hoisted the cup in seven of its 11 editions. The Montreal Impact have won three times and the Vancouver Whitecaps once.
This year’s tournament started with a record 13 teams and is now down to four. Toronto, as defending champion, joins the competition in the semifinal round.
The Whitecaps were upset 2-1 on aggregate in the last round by Cavalry FC. The Calgary CPL side visits Montreal on Wednesday in the other semifinal. The Impact advanced by dispatching York 9 FC on 3-2 aggregate.
The second legs are slated for Aug. 14 with the two-legged final scheduled for Sept. 18 and 25. The tournament winner qualifies for the CONCACAF Champions League.
Vanney says he will start former No. 1 Alex Bono in goal and will likely turn to Canadians Jay Chapman, Liam Fraser and Richie Laryea. He also said he would like to give teenage midfielder Noble Okello a chance to play during the series.
“We’re still sizing that up but we’d like to get him involved,” Vanney said of the six-foot-four Okello, who was part of Canada’s Gold Cup team this summer although he did not see action.
Venezuelan winger Erickson Gallardo, whose TFC debut has been delayed by a quad strain, should be available. French midfielder Nicolas Benezet, who made his debut off the bench in last weekend’s 1-0 loss at the New York Red Bulls, could also see action.
Vanney has been mulling over his Canadian Championship lineup while planning for key MLS games against Eastern Conference rivals Orlando and Columbus on Saturday and Aug. 17.
“That’s been my off-hours for the last week or so and my entire night (Sunday) night — trying to put all those pieces together,” said Vanney.
The goal is to grab a lead in the first leg and ease the pressure of the return match, with both teams facing crowded league schedules.
Toronto and Ottawa have met the last two years in the Canadian Championship with the MLS side advancing each time.
In 2018, TFC won 1-0 at Ottawa and 4-0 at BMO Field. The previous year Ottawa won its home leg 2-1 but exited 5-2 on aggregate after a 4-0 loss in Toronto.
TORONTO FC AT OTTAWA FURY FC
Canadian Championship semifinal (Game 1)
Wednesday, TD Place Stadium
FORM: Ottawa (6-4-9 in league play), which stands eighth in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference, has lost just once in its last seven matches in all competitions (3-1-3). Toronto (9-10-5) is eighth in the MLS Eastern Conference.
NEW FACE: Ottawa’s newly signed striker Hadji Barry made his debut as a substitute last time out in the Fury’s 0-0 draw with Birmingham Legion FC. The Guinea-born forward, who was with Israel’s Kiryat Shmona most recently, is likely an option off the bench until he gets game fitness.