By Ridge Mahoney
Lots of soccer players leave home at a tender age to launch their careers, but very few take a long journey to a foreign land a dozen years into life.
So began the saga of U.S. international Greg Garza, who has landed in Atlanta -- where the new local team is hurriedly preparing for its inaugural MLS season -- after stints in South America, Europe, and Mexico. To support a flashy attacking contingent featuring Miguel Almiron, Hector Villalba and Josef Martinez, the expansion team is building a foundation with Michael Parkhurst, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Tyrone Mears and Garza.
“It should be a fun new project,” says Garza, who while bouncing around the world has played for U.S. youth teams and earned his 10th senior cap last Sunday against Serbia. “It’s always complicated having a new expansion team coming into the league, but it really looks like they’re a step ahead of all the other ones. They’ve made some pretty big signings and I just hope we can gel and find that chemistry to make it a good year.”
Shortly after the New Year, Atlanta United finalized a deal by which the native of Grapevine, Texas, and former Sao Paulo youth player would be loaned out by Club Tijuana. Garza, 26, is still on the way back from a long battle with hip injuries and other physical problems that have stalled his playing career, but technical director Carlos Bocanegra tagged him as a vital component in building a team from scratch.
“Greg is a quality left back whose profile fits in nicely with our style of play,” said Bocanegra. “He has the ability to get up-and-down the line to contribute to both sides of the ball, and his experience in Mexico, along with the U.S. national team, brings another quality dimension to our team.”
It's no coincidence that Bocanegra played a lot of left back and centerback in MLS and overseas as well as for the national team. Garza has already filled in the overseas part, has joined an MLS team and is squarely in the U.S. player pool. In his 69 minutes against Serbia, he committed a clumsy foul on the edge of the box that should have resulted in a penalty kick and committed a few other mistakes, but much of his play confirmed he knows how to play a position that has been a problem spot for the USA. It was his first cap since 2015.
“The main thing that stuck out was, he wanted the left back for Atlanta United be the left back for the national team,” says Garza. “I hope I can hold him to his word this coming year and hopefully have them take the option to buy.”
That sounds like the door back to Mexico is swinging shut but only if Garza can stay healthy and produce. There’s no question of his ambition -- why else would he and his family agree to a seventh-grader living in Brazil? In Sao Paulo he trained every day with boys who lived in the dangerous, impoverished favelas and knew the game was most likely their only way out.
That sudden, extreme exposure to pro life in a foreign country is one more reason he’s anxious to show Bocanegra, president Darren Eales, and head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino what he can do. And Bruce Arena, too, of course.
“I hope I can follow in his footsteps as well,” says Garza of Bocanegra, the former U.S. international who retired with 110 caps and is also of Mexican descent. “He’s someone you can look up to and what a better ex-player to have under your belt, and also to have Tata Martino and his coaching crew as well. There are no words. They’ve trained some of our idols we watched growing up and guys you dreamed of playing against or playing with. Now we can learn from him.”
Had Garza stuck around for a few more years he could have been part of the acclaimed FC Dallas academy program. (He played one season for the Dallas Texans club.) No team in the league has signed more Homegrown players, and none have sent more to the first team. The current crop of nine on the roster includes Kellyn Acosta, Victor Ulloa and Jesse Gonzalez, who have started a combined total of 157 league games in their brief careers.
In addition to the impressive stadiums built and outstanding players signed by MLS teams in the past decade, Garza cites the youth development programs mandated by the league as an essential element. “The academy players are coming up to the league and I think that’s probably the main thing,” he says. “From thinking youth all the way up is really making it exciting. I unfortunately was leaving the country when they were starting up the academy stuff. It’s cool to see and the country itself will keep growing as well.”
On the other hand, Garza’s wanderlust started at a young age. Without actually doing the math, he believes he’s spent more of his life outside the U.S. than within its borders. He left his home at 12 to join the youth development program of Brazilian club Sao Paulo, came back to the States to join the Under-17 Residency Program in Florida, then took his first leap at the pro game in Portugal.
He joined Sporting Clube and played for its U-19 team but wasn’t offered a place on the first team. He moved onto Estoril and after playing just a handful of first-team games decided against signing a new contract.
Garza was just 19, recently married to a Brazilian-Portuguese woman whose father played professionally, and not sure of what to do next until a conversation with Joe Corona led to a trial, and then a contract, with Club Tijuana, which had earned promotion to the Primera Division the same week Garza turned down Estoril. Finally the vagabond had found a home.
Xolos went through five head coaches from 2012 to 2015, yet Garza’s smart, rugged play featured in 84 matches and led to national team appearances and a loan move to Atlas. But chronic hip and groin problems, possibly caused by his attempts to recover from a knee injury, forced him to undergo surgery a few weeks before the Concacaf Cup playoff against Mexico in October 2015. “I think the injury had a lot to do with it,” he says. “Being off the field for 11 or 12 months is not something every player wants.”
He recovered through long months of painful rehabilitation and started the first game of the Apertura season last July, but suffered a concussion and didn’t play another match. His injury history, coupled with a new Liga MX rule that limits Mexican teams to 10 foreign-born players on game-day rosters (the “10/8” rule), hurts his cause. He’s classified as a foreign player even though he holds dual citizenship thanks to his father, who was born in Mexico.
“Mexico will probably have a tough time changing the rules,” he says. “There are a lot of U.S.-born players like me playing in Mexico and maybe this means clubs won’t be scouting and signing them so much.”
To obtain his MLS rights, Atlanta United needed to negotiate a trade with Columbus, which had listed him as a Discovery Player. Most such deals involve allocation money and this one will too if he plays 12 games for Atlanta United or the club converts his loan into a transfer. As of now, the Crew holds Atlanta’s second-round SuperDraft pick in 2018.
The convoluted, crazy mechanisms used by MLS actually worked in his case. Bocanegra knew of his abilities and of his interest in MLS and the team needed a left back. Garza, marginalized by procedural changes, needed a place to start anew. Again.
“It’s been a wonderful run for the last five years in Mexico and I have nothing to complain about,” says Garza. “I’m very grateful for everything that has happened there. It got me in this position three years ago and I think I held it strong for a couple of years and had the injury, and now I need to get back into it. It’s just getting minutes again and start to get more opportunities to get on the field."