CINCINNATI — FC Cincinnati left back Greg Garza has been anxious to get on the field with his new club since a quadricep injury sidelined him for the entire preseason.
A chance to make his Cincinnati debut on the road against his former team was just an extra carrot dangling in front of him the past few weeks.
Garza, whom FCC acquired from defending MLS Cup champion Atlanta United in December, participated in his second full training session Thursday and is hopeful to play Sunday when FCC rolls into Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Coaching staff have yet to decide who will be making the trip, but Garza sounded pretty sure he would be ready as early as last week.
“It's going to be a lot of emotions,” Garza told WCPO at the team’s media day event. “I'm sure my family will be there as well, so it's a lot of emotions. The last time I was there, I was packing everything up and getting ready to go on vacation. Since then I've connected within the airport, going to Charleston, and I was fortunate enough to still have a lot of people in the airport recognize me and ask me why I left, but it's those things that happen within this sport that you really can't control. I'm really excited to be a part of this new project here.”
The last six weeks haven’t been easy on Garza, as he was limited most of that time to watching from the sidelines. He had strained his quadriceps during a U.S. men’s national team training camp session in mid-January and originally thought he would be back on the pitch relatively fast.
Garza started doing a little ball work in early February during the team’s trip to Florida for a nearly two-week stay but ended up backing off when a check-up revealed the level of the strain was more serious than originally diagnosed. He finally was able to get into some drills last week, participating in a portion of training on Feb. 26 for the first time before getting the all-clear for full training Tuesday.
The 27-year-old defender said he feels great and doesn’t feel any remnants of the injury.
“It's been good to be back on the field with these guys, just to get acclimated to the group and feel like I am actually part of the group,” he said. “It's definitely frustrating to watch from the outside, especially from the very beginning, but it's very satisfying and I'm looking forward to the work we put in this week.”
FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch said Garza looked “fantastic” in his first two practices this week, and he has potential to be “a big-time player” for the club, but he won’t rush Garza back just to allow him a chance to play his old team.
If Garza is deemed ready and in good enough “match fitness,” Koch anticipates him being available for selection Sunday.
“It's great to see him out there,” Koch said Thursday. “He's got through now two full training sessions, but we don't have to make a decision for Sunday just yet. ... Obviously you can always get caught up in the emotional side of going back and playing against your old team, but we have to make the right decision for him and his personal longevity, too.”
The United will be holding a banner presentation to celebrate their 2018 MLS Cup championship, which Garza played a big role in obtaining. When asked if Garza would travel with the team regardless of his availability Sunday, Koch quickly shot that idea down.
“It's great that Atlanta is celebrating, but Cincinnati has nothing to do with that,” Koch said. “We have a job to do, and they can focus on what they need to do. If he's not in the 18 and they want to reward him, why don't they just fly him down? But we're not in the charity business, so if Greg is available for selection, we will probably have him in the 18, but we're not going to get caught up in the emotion. That's their special day. We have a job to do, and we are focused on our job.”
Garza wasn’t sure if he would be recognized at the game as a member of that championship team but said he would expect a “wonderful reception” from the crowd and his former teammates. He still keeps in touch with many of them on a daily basis, he said.
“I think I had a really good relationship with the people there, and I think people really liked me there, so it was obviously bittersweet to leave,” Garza said. “But I think everything that was offered here with this project, being able to be part of something that is starting from the bottom and wanting to build up toward success, that's one of the most beautiful things I've been a part of as a player in my career. To be a part of another one is something special to me.”
This is Garza’s third expansion team, as he also played for Liga MX newcomer Tijuana in 2012. He remained there until 2017, when he went to Atlanta on a one-year loan before signing a multi-year deal at the end of the United’s first season.
Garza won titles with both Tijuana and Atlanta in their second seasons and joked that he might be the key ingredient for expansion team success. He certainly could be a big factor for FC Cincinnati, which struggled defensively against Seattle in a 4-1 loss to open the club’s inaugural Major League Soccer season Saturday.
Atlanta is coming off a 2-0 loss to D.C. United in its opener and then lost 3-0 to Monterrey in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League tournament Wednesday.
“It's obviously difficult (to start that way), but you never know with those guys,” Garza said. “They have enough talent to turn things around. The same thing happened to us last year with the 4-0 loss to Dynamo (in the opener) and we ended up winning the whole thing. They have the caliber of players they have, there's a lot of talent on that field, and I think if we can specifically pick out those strengths they have and get those players out of the field as quickly as possible with pressing them as much as we can, I think we can find their weaknesses.”