TORONTO — As the mercury plummets and the snow piles up at BMO Field, it seems like spring may never come for Toronto FC and their Designated Player, Julian de Guzman.
But the disappointment of 2010 hangs worse for de Guzman. The Canadian international with blazing speed and dazzling ball skills revealed last week that he is in the midst of a three-month recovery process after undergoing knee surgery to repair a damaged meniscus.
“It was the first time I have ever had this injury,” de Guzman told MLSsoccer.com. “I was told it was wear and tear from an accumulation of games, traveling and training on turf.”
[inline_node:315733]De Guzman said he first noticed the pain in August, just as his team was in the midst of a six-team playoff race. But the workload and stress on his knee increased as TFC worked through the CONCACAF Champions League group stages, which meant less rest and more midweek games.
“Winding down to the last month of the season, it was nearly impossible to bend the knee at all,” de Guzman said. “Then, in the last match of the season in DC, in the early stages of the game, I felt the meniscus ligament finally tear. I finished the match and then afterward the MRI revealed the bad news.”
Unaware of his injury, fans and media criticized de Guzman as his play sputtered and his team recorded a six-game winless streak between Aug. 11 and Sept. 18.
“It was more of an uncomfortable feeling in trying to make it through the 90 minutes, and then after the games, that’s when I’d feel most of the pain,” de Guzman said. “Later, drawing to the end of the season, the injury was really an on-and-off issue during matches — not enough to stop me from playing, but enough to affect my quality of performance.”
De Guzman underwent surgery to repair the damaged knee cartilage in November and says the operation was a success. However, the injury proved frustrating to the Canadian as he was unable to fully perform at the level at which he had once been lauded.
A ruthless defensive midfielder known for making the big stops but for also showing the flare of a playmaker, de Guzman always played his game in overdrive.
As a youth player, de Guzman sought opportunities abroad to improve his game. With the support of his father, de Guzman dropped out of high school at the age of 16 and joined the youth system of famed French club Olympique Marseille.
His first experience in France was discouraging, though, as a club director told him to give up the game and quit. But de Guzman said the negative feedback motivated him more.
[inline_node:326706]After five seasons in Germany, de Guzman became the first Canadian to play in Spain’s La Liga when he joined Deportivo La Coruña in 2005. He spent four seasons helping lead a revival at the Galician club.
Because of his aggressive play, he became one of the more feared central midfielders in the league, though there have been many flashes of his clinical finishing abilities.
During his debut year in Spain, he smashed a riveting long-distance goal against Real Madrid, a squad that boasted David Beckham, Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane. He also had a memorable performance for his national team in the 2007 Gold Cup in which he was named tournament MVP after guiding Canada to the semifinals.
In August of 2009, de Guzman returned home to play at TFC, signing a three-year contract to become the club's first DP. Despite flashes of brilliance, he never reached his full potential in MLS and last season, aside from the knee injury, he was also hampered by a midseason hamstring strain that further dampened his performance.
Last year’s tailspin and 9-13-8 record is something that doesn't sit well with de Guzman and his teammates.
“The hunger in my belly is there for the new season to start because experiencing last season’s disappointment really didn’t add to a nice feeling over the holidays,” he said. “The good thing about this dark feeling is that there’s only one direction for the boys and the entire organization knowing that there’s something to prove for the new season.
“Last season we lacked too many things before the season started," he added. "This time, with better preparation, I can only imagine moving on up and becoming one of the better sides in MLS.”
Following the recent hiring of head coach Aron Winter and player development director Paul Mariner, de Guzman said he expects a turnaround as the team looks to become more attack-minded.
[inline_node:325969]“It will take time for Canadians to understand this concept and for the benefits to sink in,” de Guzman said. “Overall, having a Dutch legend like Winter as part of Toronto FC will only help enrich the soccer culture in Toronto and most likely open doors to discover more talent, not within the city but across the country.”
De Guzman now hopes to be at the start of TFC's rebuilding process when training camp begins in February as he takes his first steps on his repaired knee.
“As of now, I’m pretty much on track with the recovery plan,” he said. “The first part of the team’s training camp will be used to regain the muscle around the knee and strengthen the leg. Throughout that process, I’m expected to join the squad little by little and my goal is to fully part of training halfway through camp.”
Both he and the club remain optimistic of his full recovery from knee surgery in time for TFC's regular-season opener on March 19 against the expansion Whitecaps at Vancouver’s Empire Stadium.