BRIAN SCIARETTA - Wednesday, October 24, 2012
The 2012 Liga MX Apertura season has seen its share of surprises but none more than Club Tijuana's rise to the top of the table.

Club Tijuana, also known as "Xolos" (short for Xoloitzcuintles), has risen to elite status in Mexico in a very short period of time. The Club was founded in 2007 and earned promotion to the top flight in May 2011. Now, after 14 games of the 2012 Apertura season, they are battling with Toluca for first place on a weekly basis.

Playing just a few miles away from the California border, Club Tijuana has built its success this year with three Americans on the first team. US internationals Joe Corona and Edgar Castillo have been consistent contributors all season long but recently left back Greg Garza has risen to the occasion.

Garza, 21, signed with Tijuana last December and has gradually become integrated into the first team.

On October 13, while many players were out on international break, Greg Garza started for Tijuana in an important game against Santos Laguna. With Santos up 1-0 in the first half, Garza scored his first ever professional goal on a close range shot inside the box. That game would finish 2-2 and Garza went on to start the following game against Cruz Azul, which also ended in a 2-2 stalemate.

"It's an amazing atmosphere for all of us right now," Garza told YA. "We're definitely very proud of what we've done with the club. For a club in [its second season] in the first division, you couldn't ask for more. We just have to keep our heads in the game and to know there's a lot more work in the years ahead. We just have to work hard."

In Liga MX, the competition for playing time is intense. For most of the season, Garza has been playing behind Castillo. Under the current format Mexico, however, Garza has had opportunities to impress.

The league does not take breaks during FIFA international windows and the Copa MX (a cup tournament that involves Ascenso MX teams) has also been reintroduced this year to give younger players opportunities to play. As a result, Garza has earned significant minutes. Then, Castillo was injured earlier this month while on international duty with the US national team, thereby opening a spot at left back.

Garza does not know what his status in the starting lineup will be once Castillo returns to action soon but his focus remains primarily with the team, not his own individual goals.

"We're all professionals," Garza said. "We all understand that what we want most is to play and start but the most important thing is being a good team player and stepping up if Edgar is injured. We both respect each other and we're very good friends. When he comes back and if I'm still behind him, there's no problem at all. The most important thing is the team. There's so much depth on our club."

For Garza, the path to Club Tijuana was a long and sometimes rocky road. As a standout player in his native Dallas, Texas, Garza moved to Sporting Lisbon where he played for the prestigious club's U-19 team. In 2010, he signed with Estoril in the second tier of Portuguese soccer but parted ways with the club in at the end of the 2010/11 season. Estoril had offered him a two-year contract but Garza wanted to move on.

For the rest of 2011, Garza went on various trials across Europe, but it wasn't until December, when he arrived in Tijuana, that he found a place where he belonged.

After a successful trial, Garza inked a contract with the newly promoted team. What drew him most to Tijuana was the camaraderie across the entire organization.

"I turned down an offer from Estoril because I thought I needed something new," Garza recalled. "I didn't feel right where I was at the time. I had a dry spell there for a while and it was very frustrating. But, with the help of my wife and my agent not giving up on me, I had the opportunity to come here to Mexico.

"From the very first day I got here, they showed interest," he added. "They made me feel like I was at home. That's something I haven't felt since Sporting. That helped big-time. The coaches were very tight with me and it allowed me to be friends with everyone. That plays a huge part in coming into a team."

Garza, whose father is from Mexico, was initially reluctant when his agent told him about the interest from Tijuana. The city has struggled in recent years with highly publicized outbreaks of violent crime and drug trafficking.

While several players on the club live across the border in San Diego, Garza has remained in Mexico where he intends to be part of an improving city and team.

"When I first heard Tijuana, I was a little bit worried," Garza admitted. "I actually just bought an apartment here. It's wonderful. I see myself here for the next few years to try to build the club."

As Garza aims to be one of the building blocks of Tijuana's success, he will be doing so at one of the most ambitious clubs on the continent. When the team's chairman, Jorge Hank Inzunza, founded the club he did so not with the intent it could become one of the most powerful team's outside of Europe.

Tijuana's resources to become a perennial power in Mexico are impressive. With an aggressive push to attract fans from both San Diego and Tijuana, the club has been able to quickly build a large fan base while tapping into the American market.

With a likely berth in the Copa Libertadores on the horizon, Garza looks forward to seeing how far the team can continue to grow in the years ahead.

"One of the main objectives now is the Libertadores," Garza concluded. "For a club just in its second season in the first season to be in the Libertadores would be amazing accomplishment. That's on all of our minds right now."

"I think that the president has let us know that he created this club to make history," he continued. "It wasn't just to make a club that would be in the first division. I think that everyone is really on the same page. The players, the coaches, and the directors - the work that is put in by everyone allows that extra motivation to make a name for the club worldwide, not just in Mexico."

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Club Tijuana, Gregory Garza, Liga MX, Mexico