RedNation Online recently had the chance to catch up with Canadian International Julian de Guzman to discuss the start of the Canadian National Team’s World Cup qualifying campaign for Brazil 2014. In this interview, De Guzman discusses his fitness heading into Canada’s first World Cup qualifier against St. Lucia, his recent form with Toronto FC, the state of the Canadian midfield given the absence of an injured Atiba Hutchinson, Canada’s first three opponents (St.Lucia, Puerto Rico, St. Kitts and Nevis) in World Cup qualifying, how he balances club and country responsibilities, and the state of mind of some of Canada’s older players heading into what could be their final chance at playing in a World Cup.
RedNation Online (RNO): I'd like to start off by asking you how you are feeling physically heading into the start of World Cup Qualifying for Brazil. Obviously, the meniscus injury has influenced your ability to perform for both club and country and now you look like you are getting back into top shape. How are you feeling?
Julian de Guzman: It’s getting better little by little. I just take it day by day. I’m staying on top of it as much as possible with the treatment and the ice, even on days off. I can’t remember the last time I had a full day off because even when we have an off day, I’m still in the training room getting treatment and doing extra work. And I think that is what comes with certain injuries like the meniscus injury. It’s something that doesn’t take long for you to get back onto the field, but to get game fit and back to your top form, it will take a while and I was told that it might even take a whole season, which is something that I have been experiencing. Right now it’s feeling really good, but I don’t want to jump the gun. I just want to continue to enjoy every day that I get to go on the pitch.
RNO: Does it feel much improved from where you were at during the Gold Cup?
Julian de Guzman: It’s a lot more improved, but the thing is that I have felt this comfort with the knee even before the Gold Cup and then the swelling came, which they said was a normal reaction. My goal is pretty much to finish this season on a high note and fit.
RNO: You have been on a good recent run of form with TFC and a goal-scoring run of form at that. Are you looking to carry that impressive form over into the World Cup Qualifying matches with Canada?
Julian de Guzman: It comes down to what is expected from me on the National Team and the role that Stephen Hart wants me to be involved in. First, I have to be fit to make the team and get the callup and, second, it will be whatever Stephen wants me to do. And I’m willing to do whatever he wants me to do. The guys on the National Team are guys I have been involved with for a long time and my expectations and the style of play from that group will be no surprise. If I do get chances it will be great and hopefully I will put them away. But for the next couple of games in the World Cup Qualifiers the important thing will be to get a lot of goals as a team and to secure three points.
RNO: On the topic of a meniscus injury, Stephen (Hart) has said that Atiba Hutchinson probably won’t be available for the first few World Cup Qualifiers due to his fitness due to a meniscus issue. Does that put more pressure on the other midfielders to step up, given that Atiba was in great form at the Gold Cup until he got hurt?
Julian de Guzman: Yeah, it’s unfortunate. I remember that he already had meniscus surgery a year ago and then going into the Gold Cup he didn’t have the chance to complete the tournament because of the meniscus injury. This is also an opportunity for a lot of the midfielders on the National Team to prove themselves. And that’s how the game works. Even Ali (Gerba) has done his meniscus as well and there are going to be other strikers who will be hungry to win a spot on the National Team. It’s only really a short period of a week in which you can prove yourself to a coach and then whatever minutes you can get in a game. It’s going to be crucial for the team to do well and also crucial for guys who are going to step in and play a role. It’s a good mixture of certain factors for a team to do well, and guys are going to be hungry while at the same time the team needs to get results.
RNO: Considering that the first three teams you will play are lower ranked teams, there has been some debate as to which players Stephen should call up. Should he call up young players and blood them and give them a chance or should he go with all the proven guys in order to make sure he gets the results? What do you think?
Julian de Guzman: To be honest, I don’t think it is really the time to experiment. I think you want to go out with your top players and the guys you are most comfortable with. There are going to be a lot of experienced players as well as young players. I think when you go into a World Cup Qualifying game it is very important and we want to clinch a spot in the next stage as soon as possible. And I’m sure that once that has been confirmed, that will probably be the time to experiment with new faces and to find some more depth in the squad. But in the first 4-5 games you want to get three points and secure first place. And after that experimenting could be the next step in whichever remaining games we have in that group.
RNO: Are these extra games this time around a benefit? It has always been a criticism of the Canadian Soccer Association that the team has not been together enough and now you have been mandated to play these extra games.
Julian de Guzman: I think it’s a great thing to have these extra games. I guess it is a blessing in disguise to be poorly ranked in FIFA, but this will now allow us to be involved in International dates and it will put the team to a good test. I think this could get the ball rolling as well if we can some momentum and comfort within the squad. This could be something that we can definitely use ahead of the next stage and could allow us to dominate as well. I think a winning mentality has always been a problem in Canadian football in general and just to get some wins under our belt would be a new change for the National Team. If you look at the U.S., they play against all types of teams. And from just winning a game, it can do wonders and it could set us up for upsetting one of the top teams. That’s something that we definitely need for ourselves and I think for the program to do well in the future.
RNO: There are always issues around balancing things out between club and country, especially in the MLS. And, of course, a lot of that comes down to, in your case, discussions between Stephen Hart and Aron Winter. How do you balance responsibilities out in terms of getting enough physical and mental rest?
Julian de Guzman: It’s very important. Already with the MLS it is very demanding physically with the travelling and the games. And you end up playing almost fifty games in eight months. Not even teams like Barcelona or Real Madrid could comprehend something like that. But when you know how to handle it in a professional manner – and recovery is key in this league – then I think you are able to withstand the travelling and games. And then National Team games on top of that, it’s another huge factor for players who are involved with their country and the MLS. So right at this moment you have a goal set for yourself and with the amount of games ahead of you and with the travelling, I think it is more of a mental factor, being able to program your mind and psych yourself up not just for games, but also for travel. It’s something that I have learned to do since I have come to the MLS – which is to put the travelling as something as important as playing on the field. It’s not just the games, but also sitting on planes for a long period of time and then being able to recover on that night and being able to play the next game. It’s not an easy thing but I think it is possible, just from a mental aspect.
RNO: Are you excited and pumped up for the start of another round of World Cup Qualifying?
Julian de Guzman: Oh yeah, most definitely. This is I think for a lot of the guys that have been with the National Team program – there is generation of them that realize that this is probably their last draw. And just being involved with the squad from the last Gold Cup, you could feel the maturity of the team and how we have been able to grow together and learn from past experiences in World Cup Qualifying competition and even Gold Cup matches. I think this is of huge importance to myself and a lot of the other guys and I think you could feel the excitement and the drive that we have in wanting to get out of this stage as number one and then in wanting to qualify from the next stage as the number one as well. This is a good opportunity to leave a good mark for our International careers and making the World Cup would be the best dream ever.