Gringo Report: Restrepo crosses border to Venezuela

GUADALAJARA, Mexico — After considering offers from far and wide, former University of Virginia goalkeeper Diego Restrepo has completed a move from relegated Colombian side América de Cali to current Venezuelan champions Deportivo Táchira.

“I'm thrilled to move because I'm going to probably the biggest club in Venezuela,” Restrepo told MLSsoccer.com by phone from Colombia late Thursday night. “It's a club that has been playing Copa Libertadores for the past couple of years and it's an honor. I think I'll have a good chance to fight for a starting spot.”

Champions for seventh time in Venezuela, Táchira will make their 13th Copa Libertadores appearance in 2012. They have been drawn in a group with Brazilian powerhouse Corinthians, Paraguayan champions Nacional and Mexican giants Cruz Azul. El Aurinegro open group play on February 15 when they host Corinthians at the Estadio Polideportivo de Pueblo Nuevo.

The chance to play in the continental tournament was one of the biggest reasons Restrepo chose to sign with Táchira rather than with any of the other clubs pursuing him, such as MLS’ Chivas USA and Colombian sides Millonarios and Huila.

“Playing Copa Libertadores is such a big window: You play one big game and you can be on the other side of the pond,” he said, hinting at his desire to move to a European club soon.

Restrepo, 23, was born in Venezuela, raised until he was 13 in Colombia, and then moved to Florida, where his career took off. Restrepo won the 2009 NCAA College Cup's Defensive MVP, was named the MVP of the ACC Tournament, and was a key figure in Virginia capturing the national championship that year. In the wake of that success, he joined América de Cali in 2009.

After biding his time at the legendary Colombian club, “El Gringo” Restrepo was thrust into the spot light at the end of this season. He endured a roller coaster last month. First, an injury to the regular starter forced him into first-team action for América’s playoff quarterfinal against Once Caldas. He kept a clean sheet in a scoreless draw in the first leg. But then he received two quick-fire yellow cards in the return fixture, and Once Caldas capitalized to take the tie 2-0 overall. In the end, América de Cali were relegated for the first time in their history.

“At that moment, I felt like the world was collapsing on top of me,” Restrepo admitted, adding that after the game his personal safety was put in jeopardy in the soccer-mad city of Cali.“It's a lot different in this country. Unfortunately, it's like that. If I had to summarize my time here, it's probably 10 years of experience just because the environment here is crazy.”

Things will be equally passionate at Táchira, but he hopes not as crazy. Restrepo will be the second American to play for the club, following in the footsteps of early 1980s striker Dan Birkey, a.k.a. "el Torito Blanco," who is now the head coach at Concordia University in Portland, Ore.  

Internationally, Restrepo is still eligible for the United States, Colombia and Venezuela, although playing in his country of birth brings him right under the eye of the latter's national team setup, with the next round of South American qualifiers in June.

Tom Marshall can be reached at tom.marshall.mex@gmail.com.