How do you walk away from a dream you have chased for almost half your young life? Greg Garza faced that question at the ripe old age of 20.
Having watched his professional soccer career stall and seeing months go by without a clear option on the horizon, Garza gave serious thought to something that seems absurd three years later.
Garza almost walked away from the game of soccer.
This isn’t a case of a player losing his love for the game, or injuries cutting a budding career short. Garza was at a crossroads. He faced the reality of having months go by without a clear-cut club option. Married at 18, Garza felt the pressure of needing to provide for himself and his wife, and the online college degree he had recently earned gave him the option of hanging up his cleats and seeking out a new career that didn't involve the sport he grew up loving.
That scenario sounds downright crazy to consider less than three years later, as Garza rides a wave of success he couldn’t have envisioned in the summer of 2011, when he almost gave it all up. Today, he is the starting left back for Mexican side Club Tijuana, and played so well in his first two U.S. national team starts earlier this month that he is being dubbed the future of the left back position.
“Greg Garza looks like he was always with us," an impressed Jurgen Klinsmann said after the USA's 1-1 tie with Honduras on Oct. 14. “I don’t know. It’s really fun to watch this guy. I’ve known him for quite awhile, but he didn’t play on a regular basis with Tijuana. He made kind of his own way through the system.
“When there’s a chance to go forward, he goes forward, but he’s first and foremost, he’s a left back, so he’s a defender,” Klinsmann added. “He plays with discipline, which we like. These games help us a lot there to see that potential.”
Garza’s stellar play in the Oct. 10 tie against Ecuador and his steady outing against Honduras made him one of the standouts of the recent national team friendlies. Those efforts, coupled with his success with Tijuana, have Garza living the dream he almost stopped chasing.
Garza’s pivotal moment came three years ago, in the summer of 2011. He parted ways with Traffic Sports, which had represented him in his young pro career, and turned down a chance to stay with Portuguese club Estorili Praia, where he had spent one season and seen sparse playing time. The club offered him a two-year deal, but Garza felt like he needed something new.
“I turned down a renewed contract and I knew the consequences, because that was in late June,” Garza told Goal USA. “I knew the consequences but I had to take them. I was already married as well, so it was a tough thing for both of my families, kind of hopping around to my brother in law who was actually playing at Barcelona still at the time, and also just going back home with my parents and staying for a couple months as well.”
Trials in Finland and Sweden failed to yield a deal, and the summer of 2011 disappeared quickly, turning into a desperate autumn. There was interest from Major League Soccer, led by D.C. United, but according to sources, MLS officials would only approve an offer of a developmental contact (Less than $33,000).
Around this time Garza began considering alternatives away from the playing field.
“I was at that point in time where I was like, ‘What am I going to do? Am I going to finish this school and go a different path? Maybe this isn’t for me’,” Garza told Goal USA. “There were just a lot of doubts in life and just being in that four or five months without anything.
“Also, being married at a young age where I know that I’ve got to take care of my family as well. God has a plan for all of us and I think everything worked out very well.”
Fate stepped in for Garza in the fall of 2011, when then-U.S. Under-23 national team coach Caleb Porter assembled a 31-player training camp to be held in Germany. The roster was filled with 30 players with club teams, and one free agent: Garza.
Also in that camp — his first with the Under-23s — was Joe Corona, who suggested Garza join him at Club Tijuana. Corona’s agent, Chris Megaloudis, set the wheels in motion for a trial with the Xolos.
“(Megaloudis) called me that night and said, ‘Get yourself a flight to Mexico tomorrow. Tijuana is interested’,” Garza said. “He asked me, ‘What do you want to do? Sweden, Germany or Mexico?’ I asked him what was the best bet for me and he said Mexico, and we went from there.”
“Greg has always understood soccer doesn’t last forever,” Megaloudis told Goal USA. “He graduated from university in his spare time and made it known if the right opportunity didn’t present itself, he would seriously consider walking away from the game at a very young age.
“Tijuana was an opportunity to re-establish himself with a club eager to make its mark,” said Megaloudis, who is now Garza’s agent. “The fit has been great for both, but credit to Greg for being prepared for whatever might come next.”
Garza signed with Club Tijuana in December of 2011, prior to the 2012 Liga MX Clausura campaign, and while the fresh start was a welcome one, the defender would have to bide his time. He spent a full year as seldom-used reserve playing in a stacked left back position that also included former U.S. national team fullback Edgar Castillo. Garza’s opportunity came in the spring of 2014, when Xolos manager Cesar Farias began giving Garza starts in the CONCACAF Champions League, then eventually in Liga MX.
Garza made the most of those opportunities, impressing with his steady defending and contributions to the attack. His breakout performances came in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal series against the LA Galaxy. With Klinsmann in attendance for both legs, Garza showed all the qualities of a national team-caliber left back. He showed pace, smart positioning, timing and technical quality, and played an important role in Club Tijuana’s series victory against the Galaxy.
It also put Garza on Klinsmann’s radar, and when Klinsmann spoke to him following the Galaxy series, it was enough to give the player confidence that better times were ahead.
“He just told me to be ready, and that gave me a lot more confidence to look forward to the path I was on as well with the Xolos,” Garza said of his talk with Klinsmann. “That opened a lot of doors as well with the directors and the president and everything. I think that everything is really coming into place this past year and I’m really happy there."
When Edgar Castillo left Club Tijuana for Atlas, paving the way for Garza to become a regular starter with the Xolos, the call from Klinsmann quickly followed. Garza’s first national team appearance came in the September friendly win against the Czech Republic, and though he only played 27 minutes, the experience was still thrilling for a player who had represented the United States at every youth level.
“To be honest, I was just happy to put the crest on again,” Garza told Goal USA. “For me, we always talk with the guys that do the photo shoots and guys I’ve known since the U-14s and even the equipment managers, just guys I’ve known since my first camp in U-14s. Being 13 years old and now being 23 and here with them again, it’s a pretty cool deal.
“I think that, for me, that’s the coolest thing. To have been one of those players to have done every single age group for the national team, U-14s all the way to the first team,” Garza said. “For me, that was the only thing on my mind during that first cap. Seeing my trajectory going all the way from the U14s to the national team , I was just so happy with it.”
As far as Garza has come, there is still more to do. With the CONCACAF Gold Cup looming in 2015, and the Copa America in 2016, Garza has grabbed hold of the left back spot vacated by DaMarcus Beasley, who hasn’t retired but will be hard-pressed to stay in the picture at his age. In order to hold on to that spot, Garza will need to continue to start for the Xolos, and continue to improve.
That’s an easy enough assignment for a player who is mature well beyond his 23 years. He has stared an uncertain future in the face and been rewarded for his faith by seeing his dreams come true. He still has plenty of ambition, but he is also well aware how much he has to be thankful for.
“Now I have a lovely family. I have a little kid kicking the ball now. I have an apartment, a house in Tijuana. Things have really turned themselves around,” Garza said. “Three years ago, I would have never seen myself in this stage that I’m at right now, just living the life and very blessed and humbled by all that’s happened to me. I’m just very blessed to be here right now.
“We’ve been through the ups and downs in life and I’m really thankful to be in this up right now,” Garza said. “But if there’s another down, I’m sure we’ll be ready for it as well. I think that everything that happens is for a reason and I’m just ready for whatever.”