Simcoe County Rovers looks to play David against Toronto FC's Goliath in cup game

Doneil Henry has plenty to cheer about Wednesday when Toronto FC hosts Simcoe County Rovers FC in Canadian Championship play.

Henry was the first Toronto FC academy player to graduate to the first team and had two stints with his hometown club. The 31-year-old defender is also a proud co-owner of Simcoe County, which won the 2023 League1 Ontario title in just its second season.

Simcoe's ownership group includes former Canada stars Atiba Hutchinson and Julian de Guzman as well as current Canadian internationals Janine Beckie, Cyle Larin and Henry.

Henry is looking forward to the David versus Goliath matchup.

"Ultimately I get to be a fan. I'm usually a player," said Henry. "I get to watch good football, my favourite coach (former Canada and current TFC coach John Herdman) versus my baby, my project in Simcoe County."

Based in Barrie, a growing community some 90 kilometres north of Toronto, Simcoe County has grown up quickly.

"For us, as a smaller club, It's been an amazing journey," said Peter Raco, Simcoe's president, chief executive officer and co-owner, who started building the club with de Guzman some four years ago.

Raco expects some 2,000 fans, in a fleet of buses, to make the trip from Barrie to BMO Field on Wednesday.

Qualifying for the Canadian Championship has been a goal from Day 1 for a club whose mantra is "Think big." Playing TFC is icing on the cake.

"For us this was the dream draw," said Raco.

"We want to go there, obviously celebrate the success of our young club and the community, but also compete," he added.

The club doesn't get a piece of gate revenue from Wednesday's game.

"It would be nice," mused Raco, who spent a dozen years in finance on Bay Street but is now in industrial real estate when not working on the Rovers.

Herdman, while warning the game could be a "banana skin" if his side doesn't take it seriously, said he's proud of the players behind Simcoe County.

"These people have been trying to leave a legacy for this country," he said. "A lot of what they were doing behind the scenes at Canada Soccer, no one will ever know because that will never be spoken about publicly. But they were always pushing to do the right things and leave a legacy.

"So to see them owning a club, I just wish it wasn't us they were playing. I would like to see them play someone else and push on but, yeah, (I'm) proud of what they have committed to Canadian football."

While Toronto (4-4-1) is already more than one-quarter through its MLS campaign, Simcoe doesn't kick off its regular season until Sunday. The club has been training since the start of February.

Toronto has lifted the Voyageurs club eight times and finished runner-up five times. TFC forward Prince Owusu says there should be just one outcome Wednesday.

"We know we're the better team and we have to show it," he said. "Of course, we have respect for every opponent, but we know if we do our job, it's just one team who will win this game."

Henry provides the view from the other side.

"I think we'll surprise a lot of people outside looking in," he said.

"Our objective is to be competitive … to go to this match and win," added 32-year-old Simcoe coach Zico Mahrady, a Toronto native who played in France, Qatar and Sweden.

While some Simcoe players get expenses for gas mileage and such, there is no soccer paycheque. In contrast, 20 Toronto players made six-figure salaries or better last season with 12 earning in excess of US$500,000.

Two of the Simcoe players work on the floor at a chemical plant while others are deliverymen, work at golf courses or coach soccer. Some are students.

Orlendis Benitez and Alejandro Portal are former Cuban internationals who defected following a 6-0 loss to Canada in Toronto in September 2019 in CONCACAF Nations League play.

Raco and de Guzman settled on Barrie as a good location for a team with Will Devellis, president of the Barrie Soccer Club, coming on board as chief operating officer and co-owner.

The next step was adding to its ownership with Raco and de Guzman taking a page from Salford City, a fourth-tier English side whose ownership group includes English stars David Beckham, brothers Gary and Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, all part of Manchester United's storied 1992 academy class.

"We recruited current and active leaders in the international team … individuals that could really support the development of a club, leveraging all these experiences that they've gained throughout the world," said Raco.

Simcoe currently has some 10 members in its ownership group.

Henry got involved through de Guzman, whom he considers a mentor. Their goal, he says, is "ultimately just make it easier (for players) than what we had to deal with growing up."


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This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 22 2024.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press