Photo courtesy of Club Tijuana
By FRANCO PANIZO
When Greg Garza scored the first goal of his professional career earlier this month, he was overcome with so much emotion that he couldn’t settle on a single way to celebrate it, so he settled on two different celebrations. Then a third. And a fourth.
You see, for Garza, that goal and those celebrations, albeit small, encapsulate just how far he has come in a career that has already had its share of ups and downs. Garza is just 21-years old but the early years of his playing career have forced him to grow up quickly. He has been playing and living abroad since he was 15, already become well-acquainted with the business side of soccer due to some agency hardships and bounced back from an unsuccessful season in Europe that led to questions about his future.
Those trials and tribulations made that first goal all the sweeter, which is why Garza grabbed his crest and kissed it almost immediately upon scoring the first equalizer in Club Tijuana’s 2-2 draw with Santos Laguna on Oct. 13. It is why he followed that up by making a heart with his hands, cradling his arms and pointing to the sky, all while still embracing the teammates who flocked over to congratulate him.
“On a personal level, I couldn’t be happier,” Garza told SBI last week. “I just recently bought an apartment here in Tijuana for me and my wife to settle down and got the great news a couple months ago that my wife is pregnant, so I’m waiting on a little one.
“I’m super happy on a personal level, but on a professional level as well. The team couldn’t be better. The chemistry within the team and how well we’ve done the past year, to make the playoffs two seasons in a row, and hopefully we can get farther this season than the last one.”
Things were not always so cheery for Garza, who is a left back and the son of a Mexican father and American mother. After learning the Brazilian attacking style of soccer during a one-and-a-half year stint with one of Sao Paulo’s youth teams at the age of 12 (a stint that came following a short trip to the South American country with a personal coach/former Sao Paulo player), Garza began looking for opportunities to play professionally when he turned 15.
As a result, Garza signed with Traffic Sports to pursue his dream, and shortly thereafter the Brazilian company helped land the Grapevine, Texas native the opportunity to train with Portuguese club Sporting CP’s reserve team.
“(Traffic) gave me the opportunity to go to Sporting and luckily within two, three days training, Sporting told me to get my things, pack up, bring my mom until I turned 18,” said Garza. “They helped me with every bit of that, so no complaints at all. It’s a wonderful company and they definitely help a lot of people.”
Almost everything went smoothly while with Sporting, he even met his wife, Tauanna, during his time in Lisbon through a teammate, and Garza is still adamant about how great of an experience it was to play there. But he was not offered a contract with the first team once he turned 18, so off he went in search of greener pastures.
He wound up at Estoril Praia, signing a deal in August 2010 with the then-second division Portuguese club. Garza struggled for playing time in his only year with the team, making just four league appearances.
More tough times followed. Garza was part of the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team that failed to qualify for the 2011 World Cup in April of last year and he also was without a club for almost half a season after turning down a second contract from Estoril.
“After qualifying, I finished my season in Portugal at Estoril and had the opportunity to renew for another two years and actually didn’t decide to take it,” said Garza. “I definitely had a dry spell there of four, five months until November. I had gone on trial in Sweden and Norway.”
Nothing materialized. Garza continued to be club-less and faced uncertainty as to where his future lied, and Traffic was partially to blame for the mess.
A third-party owner of Garza’s player rights, Traffic never found a real resolution for Garza, leaving him to bounce around from trial to trial. Despite those struggles, the 5-foot-7 defender insists he has no ill will toward the company, mainly because it gave him his professional start and the difficult times he endured helped him understand the business aspect of being a professional soccer player.
“There definitely have been some complaints against Traffic but I have no hardships against them,” said Garza. “I had a wonderful three years at Sporting and I have to give them credit for giving me the opportunity to be there and without them that wouldn’t have happened. I definitely am very fortunate for that and like I said, there’s always going to be hardships between players and agencies but that’s a part of football.
“We definitely got through the hardships that we did face at certain times when I was with Estoril and trying to get out of there and just finding a home and there were definitely some complaints to have, but at the end of the day, everything worked out.”
Garza, whose experiences with Traffic have him three months away from earning a degree in international business, left the Brazilian company in late 2011 and signed with James Grant Sports not long after. His agent at James Grant, Chris Megaloudis, quickly found him a trial with Club Tijuana, where Garza impressed enough to earn a contact in December 2011.
Garza did not have to wait long to make his debut with Xolos, who secured promotion to Mexico’s top tier in May 2011. He came off the bench in a 1-1 draw with Morelia in early January, but was used sparingly after that.
Still, the fresh start with Tijuana was welcomed after a rough 2011 and what made the transition to Mexico even better for Garza was that he was training with seasoned veterans who he had watched growing up. Players like Fernando Arce and Leandro Augusto were there to mentor him, and Garza labels that as the best part of his early development at the club.
“Learning from these kind of guys that you used to look up to at such a young age, there’s nothing better to that,” said Garza. “Following in their footsteps is wonderful. Just being part of that history and that story of what they’ve been through and learning from their experiences and this experience for me is definitely the most important thing about football and just keep learning day in and day out.”
Someone else who Garza is learning from is U.S. Men’s National Team defender Edgar Castillo, Tijuana’s incumbent starter at left back. The two do compete in training, but Garza insists the competition between the two is healthy and that they get along quite well on and off the field.
“Between me and Edgar, who plays, that’s being a professional player and understanding who plays and who doesn’t,” said Garza. “I think we definitely have each others’ backs and we sit next to each other in the locker room, so it’s a wonderful relationship.”
Garza, Castillo and fellow Mexican-American Joe Corona have forged a special bond since becoming teammates at Club Tijuana. Trio Gringo, as Garza refers to them, spend a lot of time together on road trips and they can constantly be seen together walking through malls or doing other off-the-field activities.
One thing Garza does not do with them that he’d like to is play for the United States. Garza has never been capped by the full senior national team but he has represented the Americans at various youth levels throughout his playing career, leaving him yearning for the chance to again suit up for the U.S.
“It’s not every player that gets to represent their country,” said Garza. “I’m very fortunate of that and it’s a wonderful opportunity for them to get national team caps with the first team and never take it for granted.
“To walk out and listen to the national anthem, there’s nothing better than that. Anytime you hear the national anthem and you’ve played for that, it’s a wonderful feeling and you get a tingling sensation. It’s a wonderful thing for them to be a part of it and who knows, for me to be a part of it in the future.”
In order to have a chance of that in the future, Garza will need to continue to develop with Tijuana. At 21, he still has plenty of room to grow and much to learn, and he knows that consistent playing time will likely be the only way to earn a U.S. call-up.
Garza has received a heavier dose of minutes from Tijuana head coach Antonio ‘El Turco’ Mohamed in recent weeks (even being the first player to come off the bench this past weekend) and he could become a staple in the team in the coming years. For now, he is happy to be establishing himself for a team that is enjoying a dream season and currently residing in first place in Mexico.
Garza has a deal with Club Tijuana that runs through next year, but he is currently in discussions with the club about a potential contract extension.
Having already endured his share of career struggles, Garza is keen on making that happen. Not just for himself, but also for his family and the club that gave him a chance when things seemed so grim.
“Me and the club directors and coaches have already talked about it,” said Garza. “Just feel very comfortable here, not so comfortable to take a break, but just to keep working hard with the club and keep having success and for me in general to help them out as much as I can.
“If that means staying here three to four years more, I’d be really happy. It’s something that doesn’t last forever and whenever you can feel comfortable within the club and within the city with your family like I do, there’s nothing more important than that.”