GUADALAJARA, Mexico — Santa Claus was good to 20-year-old winger Victor Garza this year.
The McAllen, Texas, native was told by Tigres UANL staff just before Christmas that he is set to be involved in the first-team squad during 2012 and could be on the brink of a debut in the Copa Libertadores, when the Mexican champions start their campaign in South America's club championship in late January.
“They told me to be ready for the Libertadores because there's a high possibility of taking some players from the [U-20s],” Garza told MLSsoccer.com recently. “I've got to work hard, make the most of the opportunity and get playing time.”
It won't be the first time Garza has trained with the first team. Last summer, Garza, along with fellows Americans Moises Orozco, Emilio Orozco, Uvaldo Luna and Juan Pablo Ocegueda, was invited to the preseason and has been training on and off with the squad since then.
Most recently, he was training alongside the likes of Argentine Lucas Lobos and Mexican international Carlos Salcido during Tigres' title-winning playoff run last month.
“When we won the title, everyone headed to the Macroplaza in the [Monterrey] city center,” Garza said. “When we get a championship, people go there and celebrate. It was packed. I calculate 80,000 people, probably more. It was crazy.”
It was an unforgettable experience for Garza, who headed home north of the border for a brief break straight after.
Prior to the Apertura 2011 championship, there were rumors swirling that MLS teams were interested in bringing Garza permanently back to the US, but they were quashed with the renewed possibility of debuting for the Mexican champions in 2012.
“With the championship they won, it'll open up a lot of opportunities,” said Garza, referring to the club's participation in the Copa Libertadores and, next summer, the 2012-13 CONCACAF Champions League. “[I've] just got to keep working hard to make it to the first team.”
The alum of the US Soccer Bradenton Academy could get another bonus for making the first team: earning the attention of US U-23 coach Caleb Porter in the months leading up to the London Olympics next summer.
“Pretty much the whole squad is playing for the first team, or training with the first team in Europe,” he said. “In Mexico, it's harder for younger players to push into the first team. It's complicated because they can't go and watch you play. You just have to work hard to make the first team so they can take a look at us.”
Despite the sacrifice of leaving home at 14 years old to follow his soccer dream, first at Brad Friedel's now defunct Premier Soccer Academies outside Cleveland, then at Bradenton and, finally, at Tigres, Garza has no regrets about his career so far. He believes his experience learning the game on either side of the border has been a big positive.
“We try to make what´s best from both sides,” he said. “We grew up playing over there, so when we come down here, we have to get used to the style in Mexico to compete over here. At the same time, you bring what's good from the opposite and try to combine to become a better player.
“The US has a faster, more direct style. I try to combine the two, what I see is best from the Mexican style and the US style of play.”
Tom Marshall covers Americans playing in Latin America. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.