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Meet a prospect: Garces, USMNT U-19 keeper, solid in pro debut with Atlanta

Justin Garces, 17, made his pro league debut with ATL UTD 2 on Wednesday, June 13 vs. Charlotte Independence in Gwinnett County, Georgia. (PHOTO: Atlanta United 2)

LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. — When ATL UTD 2 faced the Charlotte Independence Wednesday night at CoolRay Field in Gwinnett County, Andrew Carleton and Chris Goslin saw a familiar face manning their net.

ATL UTD 2 — the United Soccer League Affiliate for Atlanta United FC — started its fifth goalkeeper of the year, calling on 17-year-old Justin Garces. While Goslin and Carleton know Garces well, having played in countless games with him for the United States men’s national team, casual Major League Soccer fans might not be familiar with him.

Know this: Garces is pretty good. He’s shown his skill on big stages before, like when he notched three clean sheets at the FIFA U-17 World Cup, or when he won the Golden Glove at the CONCACAF U-17 Championship. Those experiences helped him Wednesday.

“Playing on the international level, there are a bunch of fans at all the games,” Garces said. “So, the chants, all the loud screams, it’s kind of helped me out and I don’t really get any nerves anymore.”

Wednesday night was the next step in Garces’ career. He made his professional debut, starting for ATL UTD 2 in a 1-1 draw. Charlotte notched a goal early off a set piece, but Garces was rock solid from there, collecting three saves.

“I botched the first pass early in the first half, but after making that first save everything just went away,” Garces said. “The game opened up for me and I was just able to play freely after that.”

Garces seems to have good size for a goalkeeper, standing at 6-foot-2 as a teenager, but he didn’t always play the position. Until he was 10 years old, the Florida native liked putting shots in the back of the net rather than stopping them. A coach at the U-10 level needed a keeper and liked Garces’ size so stuck him between the posts.

Born in Miami to a Venezuelan mother and Cuban-Ecuadorian father, Garces is fluent in both Spanish and English. He began honing his soccer skills with Kendall SC, a development academy based in South Florida. When he was 14, he joined the USMNT program.

Along with Goslin and Carleton, Garces was a key piece on the U.S. team that made a run to the quarterfinals of the U-17 World Cup in India this past November. Youngsters from India, Ghana and Paraguay failed to put a shot past him.

Garces signed on with Atlanta United’s academy shortly after the World Cup run. He’s also committed to play collegiate soccer at UCLA.

Since joining the Five Stripes, he’s been trying to soak up as much as he can about the craft of goalkeeping from the club’s veterans, Brad Guzan and Alec Kann.

“I’ve been able to pick up some small detailed stuff here and there,” Garces said. “Brad is super helpful and Alec is a real nice guy who gives me pointers all the time. Both are just really great guys. They always give me some small details on my standing, my handling and small stuff like that.”

Garces had just one day to prepare for his first professional league start. Atlanta coaches told him Tuesday he’d be manning the posts for the Wednesday match. Garces stays with a host family in Atlanta, so his parents back in Miami watched from home.

“I felt pretty good tonight,” he said Wednesday. “… Mentally I figured that Charlotte was a team full of veterans, grown men. Playing with our U-19’s to this level is a lot different, so mentally I was getting ready for a stronger, more intense contest.”

Garces was the youngest player in ATL UTD 2’s lineup and the match started off bumpy. In the sixth minute, a ball off a set piece bounced around before landing at the feet of Eamon Zayed, who easily put the shot past the young keeper.

But then Garces settled in. He gobbled up a shot from Charlotte’s Je-Vaughn Watson in the 20th minute, grabbed a corner kick early in the second half, pushed a shot in the 82nd minute over the crossbar and punched away another corner in the final moments of the game.

His performance drew praise from ATL UTD 2 manager Scott Donnelly.

“Justin was good. I think he grew in confidence as the game went on and made a couple big stops late,” Donnelly said. “He did well and I am also not surprised. He has played in big environments… So, he did well for stepping in.”

While ATL UTD 2 is mostly made up of young and inexperienced players, many of its defenders — like 25-year-old AJ Cochran and 29-year-old Shawn Nicklaw — are much older than Garces. Still, as a goalkeeper, he wasn’t afraid to order around veterans.

“I feel like that’s just one of those things you have to do. You have to trust yourself and trust your teammates,” Garces said. “They have to trust me as well. I’m in the goal, and they are my backline so if I speak up to them, they can say the same back to me. We all have to have that understanding of the game.”

Goslin and Carleton, fellow Atlanta United youngsters, are projected to be key pieces for the USMNT team going forward, but Garces could be right there with him.

It’s not so crazy to think that three Atlanta United products could be playing for the USMNT when the World Cup comes to North America in 2026.

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