MARIETTA, Ga. — Although Atlanta United FC lost the Supporters’ Shield on Sunday with a 4-1 defeat in Toronto, there were still two positives the Five Stripes could take away from the match.
One moment came in the 77th minute, when MLS Golden Boot winner Josef Martinez converted a penalty kick to end a scoring drought that lasted four matches. Seeing the ball go into the back of the net again could bode well for Martinez’s confidence heading into the postseason.
The other good thing that happened for Atlanta United came in the 28th minute. It marked the first time in more than five months that Greg Garza stepped onto a pitch and played in a meaningful MLS contest.
And after playing 66 minutes Sunday, the 27-year-old left back is feeling strong. If manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino needs him to play 90 minutes in a playoff match, Garza’s ready.
“(It was) something I wasn’t expecting, but I felt fine after the game and fully trained (Monday),” Garza said at the club’s training ground Wednesday. “Whatever they need from me. I ran like hell those four-and-a-half months out here by myself, which is a lot worse than training with the team. But yea, I feel completely healthy and fit.”
Garza missed 21 matches for Atlanta United while he was out recovering from surgery on his right shoulder.
The American defender initially injured it while playing in the 2017 MLS All-Star game, then re-injured it on March 31 of this year in a 1-0 win at Minnesota. Garza said the shoulder popped out of place during that game, but he popped it back in and kept playing. He later revealed that he had been playing with a torn labrum.
Garza tweaked the shoulder a third time on May 20 during a 3-1 home defeat to the New York Red Bulls. Garza earned a red card for the play he injured his shoulder on. He lost possession of the ball in the 70th minute and, in an effort to win it back, slid spikes-up into Sean Davis.
Days after the game, Garza had surgery. He’s been wearing a bungie-type brace around it to protect it, which he’s still getting used to. He said the brace is common for some soccer players and he’s “bungie brothers” with Michael Parkhurst, who also uses a similar brace.
“The surgery that was done should keep me from ever having to go under again,” Garza said. “Hopefully it stays that way. I have to knock on wood, right?”
When Garza elected to have surgery on the shoulder, he wasn’t sure if he would be able to return this season. Being back in time for playoffs was a lofty goal, but with hard work, it’s one that Garza achieved. He began training with the first team again fully in mid-October.
“When the injury first happened, it was one of those things where, it was kind of the rest of the season for me. I didn’t even think I was going to be able to come back for playoffs right after the injury,” Garza said. “As time went on, I started to have steady progress each and every week. It got to the point where, if I can make playoffs and they need me, I’ll be there.”
Atlanta took a loss in Garza’s return, but the well-traveled defender turned in a solid performance. The native Texan tallied three tackles, an interception, a headed clearance and 32 completed passes.
In his absence, Atlanta had a revolving door of players fill in for Garza as a defender on the left side of the field. While Chris McCann, Sal Zizzo, Mikey Ambrose, Jose Hernandez and homegrown teenager George Bello performed admirably, none of them quite brought the mix of skill, experience, knowledge of the game, strength on defense, crossing ability and speed that Garza has.
Darlington Nagbe was happy to see his teammate jog back onto the pitch Sunday.
“Greg is always threatening in the attack and he’s sound defensively. He gets up there, has great service, delivers great balls into the box for whoever is in there,” Nagbe said. “He did a good job (Sunday). He also helps us in possession, being technically great.”
Garza has played for clubs in Brazil, Portugal and Mexico. He arrived to Atlanta United in Dec. 2016, initially on a loan from Liga MX side Tijuana. But after the 2017 season ended, Garza and the club agreed on him sticking around long term and signed him to a multi-year deal.
In 37 appearances across two seasons with the Five Stripes, Garza has three goals and eight assists, and has provided defense and leadership that is unquantifiable.
As Atlanta begins its playoff run on Sunday with a first leg match at NYCFC, Garza being back in the lineup should help the Five Stripes turn the page and move on from their regular season-ending defeat to Toronto F.C.
“Just getting some minutes back in, especially on the body, just being able to feel that pressure and feel like you’re involved, was definitely worth the wait,” Garza said. “Hopefully, in a group matter, we can turn things around as quickly as possible.”