Former Atlanta United player Greg Garza retires

Atlanta United defender Greg Garza speaks to members of the press at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground in Marietta on Tuesday, December 4, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM



Atlanta United defender Greg Garza speaks to members of the press at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground in Marietta on Tuesday, December 4, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Former Atlanta United and U.S. men’s national team player Greg Garza is retiring as a professional soccer player.

Garza, who played for the Five Stripes in 2017 and ‘18, revealed his decision in an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday.

Just 29 years old, Garza said he had a few opportunities to continue playing, but he felt it was time to look toward his future after a career that started when he left home at 12 years old to go to Brazil, turned pro at 16 to play in Portugal, continued in Mexico and culminated in MLS.

“It’s a very tough decision, but a peaceful one to try to settle down and realize there are bigger things without kicking a ball every day and still loving life to its fullest,” he said.

Garza’s career included an MLS Cup with Atlanta United, a LIGA MX title with Tijuana and 10 appearances for the U.S. men’s national team, which he described as the highlight of his career because he said playing for the crest is something that can’t be taken for granted. He made 157 appearances for clubs.

Garza, predominately a left fullback with a big chest and short legs, once was described as a human grass stain because of the way he flung himself into every tackle and ran non-stop up and down the wings.

“I was the person that gave 120 percent in every single game,” he said.

Atlanta United President Darren Eales, interviewed for a series last year about great moments in the team’s history, would gleefully point out that there were times in the club’s biggest games when Garza was the player farthest down the field making things happen.

Take the first goal the team scored in its first game, at Bobby Dodd Stadium. It was Garza’s run into the penalty box that pulled the defense toward the middle and left Yamil Asad open on the back post for that historic goal against the New York Red Bulls.

That energy continued into 2018 when the Five Stripes won the MLS Cup. Garza appeared in only 11 games that season because of injuries, which is the asterisk on his career.

He said if not for the injuries -- a sports hernia in 2014, hips in 2015 and a shoulder in the MLS All-Star game in 2017 among others that he sustained during his career -- he might still be playing, possibly in Europe.

The worst was the injury to his hip labrum that required surgery in 2015. At the time, he was a regular starter for the U.S. and Tijuana, but was trying to play through a sports hernia that required injections. He was being looked at by clubs in England, Spain and Italy.

“That’s when I probably started to put my body through so much to try to keep that highest point of play,” he said. “That was the turning point in my career.”

Garza wasn’t sure that he would ever be able to walk in a straight line again, much less come close to being the player he once was. He said for all the highs of being a professional soccer player, some of the lows can happen when a player is recovering and feels forgotten, which is what was happening with Tijuana.

Before the operation, Garza said he can remember the surgeon telling him that God didn’t create his body to make it to the highest levels of soccer, but he was able to accomplish that, which was a sign of his determination. Still, the surgeon didn’t think that Garza would be like he once was. Garza fought through his 18 months of rehab and got an unforeseen opportunity with Atlanta United, who picked him up on loan from Tijuana for 2017.

Garza earned one final call-up to the U.S. men’s national team for a friendly in January 2017, a starting spot with Atlanta United and was named an MLS All-Star. He also was named an All-Star in 2018.

“They took a chance on me, and I think that 2017 season was the most fun I had in my career,” he said of Atlanta United. “It brought back that passion. ‘My body can still do some pretty cool and amazing things.’ From the get-go, I got to Atlanta and made an image for myself, within the organization and within the community.”

Garza, who was traded by Atlanta United to Cincinnati following the 2018 season, also became a living example to young players about enjoying the great moments and persevering through the lows. Garza said he hopes he is remembered as a player who consistently took advantage of opportunities.

“I’ve been humbled so many different times but also been able to use that humbleness to have ambition to always do more with myself,” he said.

Garza resides in Atlanta and volunteers for the Georgia Alliance. He now is trying to figure out what’s next for him.

He has a bachelor’s degree in sports management and an associate’s degree in international business from Ashford University, fulfilling a promise he made to his parents in Texas when he was 16. He has applied for his “B” license, which teaches long-term player development for youths, to coach soccer. He speaks English, Spanish and Portuguese.

Garza would love to stay within the sport as an analyst or in communications. He said it’s an interesting experience being the one who is trying to sell himself as opposed to being the one recruited.

“You dedicate so much time and effort, a whole life, to achieving something,” he said. “Once you achieve it, there’s not much else you can do in your career. Your trade is professional soccer. For me, now it’s trying to take that expertise and all of that teaching that I have learned to try to guide me toward that next chapter.”