STANFORD, Calif. – On a team that has come to epitomize comebacks, rookie midfielder Sam Garza’s rebirth might be the most impressive feat of all.
Struggling to find his footing for the San Jose Earthquakes during the club’s 8-3-3 start to MLS play, Garza faced Tuesday what might have been his last chance to impress coach Frank Yallop in the immediate future. With wingers Marvin Chávez (hamstring strain) and Shea Salinas (broken collarbone) either back in the Quakes’ lineup or nearing a return, Garza’s scant playing time was in danger of drying up entirely.
Given his first first-team start in the Quakes’ third round US Open Cup match against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Garza responded with his best performance by far as a pro, drilling a second-half brace to lead San Jose to a 2-1 victory at Stanford’s Cagan Stadium.
“Great night for Sam,” Yallop said after the match. “I think if you look at his talent level ... in spurts, he’s shown it with us, but to put it together and have a really, really good second half – I thought he was great. Hopefully, it gives him a ton of confidence. It was just nice to see the potential really come through.”
Garza was searching for some in-game redemption after blazing a wide-open shot in the 61st minute well over the crossbar. He found it two minutes later from the edge of the penalty area, thanks to assists from Simon Dawkins and Sercan Güvenisik – plus some motivational work from Steven Lenhart.
“I wish I could have that one back,” Garza said of the 61st-minute miss, “but me and Lenny had a good chat right after that, and he just said, ‘Keep going. You’re going to get two more. You’re going to get a hat trick.’ He kept telling me, ‘Just keep fighting, the goals are going to come.’ That’s what we did.
“We kept pressing them, we kept going at them. And they couldn’t handle us.”
Garza was a force to be reckoned with along the right wing, especially after a halftime in which Yallop’s staff encouraged him to be more assertive. The UC Santa Barbara product finished with five shots, three on frame, and was fouled a team-high six times by a Strikers defense hard-pressed at times to keep up.
“We were a little flat coming out, just trying to find our rhythm,” Garza said. “[In the] second half, we found our second wind, and I found my second wind. We kept the ball really well. We went forward when we needed to, and we kept it when we needed to. So it was overall a good performance.”
The question now is how to carry Garza’s success into next week’s fourth-round USOC match against Minnesota Stars FC – and beyond that, when the Quakes reopen MLS play on June 20 in Colorado.
“Obviously, MLS is a different level from what he played against tonight, but this will give him the confidence level to do it against anyone,” Yallop said. “I think that he can play at the next level, for sure.”
Garza sounds ready for the challenge: “Two goals was good, but I’m definitely hungry for more.”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.