GARZA FINDS HOME AT XOLOS
The past two months have certainly marked a period to remember for Club Tijuana's Greg Garza.
An incredible Copa Libertadores journey to follow up 2012's out-of-nowhere Apertura title. A long-awaited contract extension that was signed last week. And, above all, a new baby son who came into the world in early April.
"You have training the next day, but you can't get that deep sleep because one little noise he makes, you're there to see what's wrong with him, to see if he's hungry, if he's in pain," Garza told YA of his newborn. "It's funny, you know, but it's a wonderful blessing."
Garza's had a lot of those lately.
Sidelined by injury, he looked on as upstart Tijuana dispatched Brazilian side Palmeiras in the second, road leg of its Libertadores round of 16 matchup. Thursday night saw Xolos hang tough once again, drawing top-seeded Atletico Mineiro 2-2 in Mexico thanks to goals from Fidel Martinez and Duvier Rascos.
In a vacuum, that scoreline seems more impressive. In reality, the underdogs went up 2-0 after Martinez's goal in the 53rd minute and looked like they might be headed for a stunningly lopsided result. Then came a goal from Mineiro's Diego Tardelli in the 66th to cut the advantage to one. Then came the equalizing, stoppage-time heartbreaker from Luan.
What could have been a huge Xolos edge heading into the return leg instead left it with another huge task in Brazil in order to move on. With Mineiros boasting a strikeforce that consists of Jo and Brazilian legend Ronaldinho, pulling out the win in Lourdes would seem an almost insurmountable feat.
The same thing was said the last time Tijuana was in this position, however. And yet here they are.
"Passing Palmeiras was something historical for us, to get to the quarterfinals, and I think with that, we definitely have the confidence to get through the next round, "Garza said. "It's going to be very, very difficult to get past Mineiro knowing the players that they have - most of these guys are guys that I watched when I was a little kid, and I think that with that, it'll definitely be a very hard test.
"But I think we have the players to do it. We have the team, the chemistry to get through, so we'll just have to see what happens in the next two weeks."
With the run it has been on over the past year, Tijuana has earned the right to be confident. That aforementioned Apertura title came in what was just Xolos' second season in Liga MX, a promotion-to-championship turnaround that represented the fastest in league history.
Americans more than played their part in that quick ascension. Against Mineiro on Thursday, manager Antonio Mohamed switched Edgar Castillo from his usual starting left back spot over to unfamiliar right back in the wake of Pablo Aguilar's suspension, a move that would seem to serve as evidence of Mohamed's trust in the U.S. international. Joe Corona, meanwhile, came on in the 71st minute as Tijuana's first guy off the bench.
Garza, who called 2013 "a season of injuries" for him, has appeared in just one Libertadores match, going the full 90 in Xolos' final group stage match against Colombia's Millonarios. The former Estoril Praia man will surely get his chances under his new contract, though, as the deal is set to run through 2015.
"It's something that we had talked about since the middle of last season," Garza said. "And we're all happy, the directors and the coaches and my agent, Chris, as well. We finally came to an agreement on everything, and hopefully it will turn out to be best for all of us."
Indeed, everything appears to be falling perfectly into place these days for the Texas native.
Garza's son is now a month-and-a-half old, and while he definitely poses a unique challenge for an early-rising professional soccer player, the wingback says he is happier than ever. He and his wife found an apartment in Tijuana last year, opting to stay on the south side of the border rather than in nearby San Diego like some of his teammates; after all, since Garza joined the club in December 2011, they've both become big fans of the lively Baja California hub.
But that doesn't mean that Garza's at all forgotten about his native U.S.
"It's always something that's in the back of my mind, being linked since the under-14s all the way up to the 23s and just hopefully waiting for a chance to get in with the first team," he said. "It's always been a dream to represent my country at the highest level."