Americans Abroad Spotlight

Americans Abroad Spotlight: Garza thriving at Club Tijuana after difficult start to pro career

Greg Garza Tijuana (Tijuana)

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.”

  • elmatador

    I’m rooting for Xolos de Tijuana all the way to take this title and hopefully Corona and Garza can contribute to the full USMNT


  • Four Cents

    ^I agree completely, but I’d also like to through Castillo in there. Before he was injured- he was part of getting this Xolos team to where it is now..

    Lets Go You Yanks!!!


    • Tim M.

      Playing in the reserves im pretty sure. If tijuana qualify for the concacaf champions league , im sure he’ll see minutes at one point or another.


  • dudeinho

    Living in tijuana is like living in the states,I work in the area throughouit the year and a bunch of my buddies have homes in Baja, Its no Surprise they are trying to attract American players.


  • Shane

    Both Garza and Castillo are too small to be the answer for the USA at LB. Sorry people but that is reality, they would have to be pretty special players to overcome that and neither is.


    • Tim M.

      IMO, To be a great defensive full back, size is one of the lesser imporant traits in comparison to positioning, marking, hustle, tactical awarness and speed. Fabian Johnson is a star lb but catillo provides different attacking dynamics that can be useful given the situation. Greg Garza is a hard working individual who has time on his side and could emerge as an option there in the future.


      • THomas

        When I think of great left backs the first two that come to mind are Ashley Cole and Philip Lahm. Both, to your point, are not known for their size.


      • Tim M.

        You only have to look as far as steve cherundolo for a prime example of a fb that can succeed on a high level, without being considered having world class skill.


    • JJ

      Roberto Carlos, Marcelo, Contrao , plus the two that Thomas said and many more. You are right size does matter.


      • Shane

        Note I said you have to be a pretty special player, the short LB mentioned are special players. And Castillo is not all that short, when I said small, I mean he is a waif. Physically he cannot compare to Ashley Cole or Marcelo. Speed can in general be correlated to height and muscle mass, and yes speed is an important trait for a LB. Garza is only short, but if he has some special talent I dont think he would be starting behind Castillo. Yes he has time on his side, except that he is not your typical American soccer player who played in high school and college. He’s been training in South America and then Europe since he was twelve. At 21 with that background his quality should be showing itself.


    • biff

      Too small, Shane? Sorry, but Castillo is technically gifted player who has improved immensely at Tijuana, is playing with much more confidence than a year ago. Yep, Castillo is only 5‘7“, but lot of good fullbacks are small. Patrice Evra 5‘8“, Philipp Lahm 5’7“, Ashely Cole 5‘9“, and Steve Cherudolo tips the measuring stick at 5‘6“.

      Unless other leftbacks improve between now and next year, Castillo will be Fabian Johnson’s back-up during the hex.

      (Nice article about Garza. I noticed that he has been getting minutes for Tijuana the past few weeks, but did not know much about him.)


    • Bellus Ludas

      I have to disagree with you my friend. Cherundolo has had great success on the outside and he is not large. Roberto Carlos is stockier but also small of stature. I prefer taller Centerbacks who have to deal with crosses, but even Tim Ream is no giant.


  • Ross

    Shane, it’s not like we have a plethora of left backs. I’d be happy with several guys who play the position for mid table clubs in good leagues.
    Johnson could be a stud and it’s his position to lose, but if he gets injured or hits a wall it’d be nice to have a couple back ups. Also the more competition the better.


    • Shane

      Agree, I only said they arent THE answer. Johnson and Lichaj should be ahead of either. And against international competition, I would take Myers, Morrow and probably a few other MLS LB before them.


  • mike

    Franco. These sort of articles are a pleasure to read. More Sciaretta-esque than simply score tallying. I knew next to nothing about Garza before reading your work here. For all the lame, bad mouthing that seems to occur from casual fans about why one player has been called to the national team and why another hasn”t (for example), these articles help a great deal to give readers a clearer understanding of what is really happening on an individual level. My only complaint is that we don’t see more of this at SBI. Why should I go all the way to Brian’s articles at the Times when I could just stay here? Thanks. Now give me some more…maybe starting with Corona?


  • Isaac

    Highlights. He seems quite good on the ball.

    There are even more. Is this because he’s associated with that company?


  • The Imperative Voice

    Has Traffic turned out well for any Americans? I mean, when I was talking with some Dynamo fans about overlooked players who have not fulfilled their potential that we could bring to the states a la Holden (who had a bad Sunderland stint) and offer a second start, it was a few people from that Traffic set of Gale A., Garza, et al.

    Does the guy have speed? Re wingback traits, IMO serious speed and at least some technical talent are the requirements. If you look at US pool players, the speed issue has stymied Spector and should limit the usefulness of Boca, Parkhurst, and increasingly Dolo. The technical issue has blocked Wynne. I think it is also useful to be a physically imposing specimen who cannot be outleaped or chipped (don’t have to be tall but must have ups and ideally enough bulk to not be shoved out of the way) which is why I’d favor Chandler and Lichaj over players like Castillo. Garza either is or is not fast, and if he’s just smart but not particularly mobile, he might still have a club career but have limited Nats value. Every time we use some player like Spector known for “how well they get forward” or Parkhurst “who knows how to position himself,” bad things tend to start to happen. I’m a big believer in mobile, physical backs.

    [To the extent people are acting like height is a CB requirement, I’d agree that some is, say, 6′-ish ideally, but the real key is being able to win headers, and also be mobile enough to man mark. Pure size is not necessarily a positive, eg, Goose and Lalas….you want more than dribbling cones….one reason I’m not big on Goodson and some of the other lanky types).


  • Bobb

    I hate to sound like a broken record, but if Greg Garza ever sees a meaningful minute with the USMNT I will eat a hat store. Dude is just to slow to be a fullback at the international level.


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