GUADALAJARA, Mexico — Greg Garza has been “one to watch” for some time now.
The Grapevine, Texas, native starred for youth powerhouse Dallas Texans for two years before enjoying a spell at São Paulo in Brazil. He then spent much of the last four years in Portugal, mainly in Sporting CP's youth academy, but also last season at second-division side Estoril.
Since the summer, though, it’s been a tough stretch. Still only 20 years old, Garza spent a six-month period out of contract, during which no one was watching him.
But now he’s back. Having signed with Club Tijuana of the Mexican Primera División, he has set some major goals for 2012.
“I think finding myself in the starting 11 here in Tijuana and also the Olympics, that’s definitely a major goal of mine,” Garza told MLSsoccer.com by phone on Tuesday from Tijuana. “Having the two would be amazing, and I'll be doing my best this year to have those possibilities.”
In Wednesday's 1-0 friendly victory over Veracruz, Garza received an early boost when he got the nod to start the game on the left flank, with Tijuana's other new American recruit, Edgar Castillo, coming on to take his place in the 58th minute.
On paper, Garza and Castillo are similar types of players: Both are left-footed and though their primary positions would be at left back, they can also play at left midfield. This brings up the tantalizing prospect for US fans of having an all-American left side on Club Tijuana.
Garza, for one, is certainly ready to play wherever the coach asks him: “I'm the type of player that if you need me right mid or right back, I'm ready to be there.”
Part of the US squad for the U-20 World Cup qualifiers, Garza has settled quickly into life in Tijuana after his three-week trial. He believes the club’s spirit holds the team in good stead for the No. 1 goal this season: averting relegation.
“[My teammates] helped me feel at home the very first week I was here,” Garza explained. “That´s what is most important with every team. You grow up seeing teams that may have a lot of good players, but the group may not be there. But with this team, the group is definitely there, the group is definitely strong and I think that we can do some good things.”
One reason the newly promoted club has a good chance of avoiding relegation might be Brazilian-Mexican midfielder Leandro Augusto, who Garza used to watch play for Pumas UNAM.
“At the beginning, I didn't really recognize who it was but Joey [Corona] told me after the first couple of days and I said, 'Wow, that was the guy I used to watch when I was a lot younger.'”
In fact, Corona has become an especially good friend for Garza. Corona, who was born in Los Angeles, was with Garza at the US U-23 camp held in Germany in November.
Good friends and playing alongside childhood idols is a far cry from the previous six months of Garza’s life. After Estoril didn't renew his contract, Garza embarked on trials with clubs in Norway and Sweden, but failed to latch on anywhere. It was frustrating and the opportunity with the Xolos came along just when he needed it most.
“It was definitely my priority to sign for a club and get back in it, I'd been out of it a little while,” said Garza. “Now that I have that, my main goal is to make my name here and try to build myself as a player and learn as much as I can.”
First thing he needs to learn is to keep his languages straight. After years living in Portugal, he has found himself mixing up the various languages he knows: English, Spanish and Portuguese.
“At times, I have to try and explain myself [in Spanish] and I catch myself speaking a little more Portuguese than Spanish,” he laughed.
After six months out of contract, Garza’s not going to complain if a few things are lost in translation.
Tom Marshall covers Americans playing in Latin America. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.