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A.J. Delagarza Discusses His Time With The Revs, His Decision To Retire, What Comes Next
DeLaGarza also talks about the mental side of the game.
A.J. DeLaGarza retired at the conclusion of the 2022 season, capping a 14-year career that included stops at the L.A. Galaxy, Houston Dynamo, Inter Miami, and New England Revolution.
As you’d expect, this decision didn’t come lightly. Some friends told him to “play until your wheels fall off” while others told him to “walk off on your own terms.”
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DeLaGarza opted for the latter.
When preseason 2023 began, he wasn’t sure how he would feel about this decision. Physically he still feels good and he always loved the locker room banter. He was nervous that he’d feel regret once players started to post pictures and the games kicked off.
But he didn’t feel that at all, partially because he was able to enjoy a soda while his former teammates prepared for the upcoming season.
“I'm so happy with the decision I made,” DeLaGarza told The Blazing Musket. “I can work out if I want to. I can not do it. One time I told my wife, I went and got her gas and there was a McDonald's across the street and I went and got a Coke and I was like, this is amazing.”
DeLaGarza accomplished so much during his playing career. With the Galaxy, he won the MLS Cup in 2011, 2012, and 2014 and the Supporters’ Shield in 2010 and 2011. He lifted the U.S. Open Cup with the Dynamo in 2018 and reconnected with the Supporters’ Shield in 2021 while with the Revolution.
Now he’s solidifying his next steps, which hopefully includes winning $1 million in a 7v7 soccer tournament called The Soccer Tournament.
A.J. DeLaGarza’s first game of 2022, his final season as a professional, was as strange as it comes.
The MLS veteran was called upon to play a home game versus Real Salt Lake in a snowstorm, something he didn’t encounter at his previous clubs.
“I remember years ago my wife was like, we'll never go anywhere where it's cold, just cause we were in L.A., Houston, Miami, and now here we were in Boston and playing a game in a snowstorm. It was crazy,” DeLaGarza said.
There was minimal snow when the players arrived at the stadium, though it started to pick up during warmups. It continued to come down during the game to the point that the field needed to be shoveled.
A true professional, DeLaGarza prepared just like he did for every other match. Yes, visibility was low and the field was like an “ice rink,” but this was an opportunity to play and get three points.
The defender came to the Revs in 2021 after one year with Inter Miami. During his first season in New England, he made five starts, collecting four wins and one tie. He was also subbed into five games, amassing four wins and one loss.
DeLaGarza was eager to start off the 2022 season in a strong way, even if the conditions weren’t ideal.
The Real Salt Lake game was played between a two-legged Concacaf Champions League series against Pumas of Liga MX. After winning the first outing at home 3-0, the Revs were preparing to head to Mexico. Head coach Bruce Arena opted to make seven changes to the starting lineup for the game against RSL.
“I think I'm probably the one that said, ‘Look, we all have an opportunity right now and we have to take advantage of it because you really don't know when that next one will come,’” DeLaGarza remembered.
“And I said it to the young guys. You have to be ready for that first chance that you get, that first start, that first appearance, whether it's a substitute, whether you're starting, because if you don't showcase what you can do, then you may not get a second chance. That's how kind of cutthroat it is.”
The game started positively as Ema Boateng gave the Revs the lead in first half stoppage time. Jozy Altidore doubled the advantage in the 62nd minute.
Then the game went off the rails. Sergio Cordova scored in the 78th minute, Justen Glad equalized in the 88th, and Tate Schmitt grabbed the game-winner in the 93rd minute.
“Man, what a terrible, terrible ending, I think for the players and for the fans who are there watching,” DeLaGarza recalled
The most absurd moment of the night might’ve happened during Carles Gil’s appearance on the post-game show. The captain, who is typically reserved when speaking to the media, used an expletive when explaining that the game should’ve been stopped.
DeLaGarza understands where Gil was coming from, noting, “There were quite a few of us from both teams who were saying, like, this is crazy. This is not how we're supposed to play the game.”
But he also remembers thinking that this was a chance for himself and others to impress the coaching staff. Competitors need to be ready when their name is called.
DeLaGarza said the locker room was melancholy after the RSL loss, explaining that he’s “sure Bruce got after us quite a bit.” More than anything else, DeLaGarza remembers how he felt after the loss.
“We're all harder on ourselves and there's nothing a coach can say to me that I haven't already thought about myself, whether I had a good game or a bad game,” DeLaGarza noted. “You know, I'm my own worst critic.”
DeLaGarza admits that the RSL snow game lingered in his mind, saying, “I'm just thinking about what should I have done better in this Salt Lake game because many guys don't talk about the mental part of it, but, you know, I was going through it and I was like, man, I'm done, I'm about to retire after this game. Like it was just the weather, the result, and all just kind of started that discussion in my head.”
Of course, A.J. DeLaGarza didn’t retire after the Real Salt Lake game. He continued to show up each week, fighting for his next opportunity.
But minutes were hard to come by in 2022. His next appearance came 74 days later when he played 120 minutes in the Revs’ 2-0 U.S. Open Cup loss to New York City FC. He earned back-to-back starts in June, earning a win and a draw.
The sporadic playing time was an obstacle for DeLaGarza.
“A difficult thing I think for me was trying to keep fitness,” DeLaGarza explained. “I can't keep fitness just from training and playing one game every two, three months. And unfortunately, I think that that hampered me, I think, physically and mentally because then you start second guessing yourself, you're like, man, I don't have it anymore.”
DeLaGarza remembers the weekly battles against Tajon Buchanan and DeJuan Jones during training. He was 34 years old and he said those players were “more athletic” than he was at that point in his career.
The competitor in him wanted to keep going, believing that these moments would make him more prepared for when he got his next moment.
But there was another part of him that wondered if he should be readying for the next phase.
“In the summertime, I was like, you know what, I'm done, just because, obviously, I didn’t have a big role,” DeLaGarza said. “But it wasn't just that, it was a lot of internal things too going on. You know, telling me that I'd be playing in a certain game and it came around and it didn't happen. And a bunch of little things that were all adding up to me being like, you know what, it's time for me to step away.”
DeLaGarza only played 291 minutes in four starts during the 2022 season. His last appearance came on Aug. 20.
Given that he was getting limited playing time, the veteran defender tried to offer his expertise to younger players, but he wasn’t able to because “the coaches wanted something different for them.” DeLaGarza noted that “we had some yelling moments, myself and the coaches, once or twice.”
But he understands that this is sometimes how it goes in soccer. When he was younger, he was the one stealing minutes from the veterans. In fact, an older player once argued that he should be starting over DeLaGarza in an MLS Cup final. Arena gave DeLaGarza the nod and the team won the trophy.
“We are all competitors no matter how old we are,” DeLaGarza said “And we all want to play. We all think we can help out. And at the end of the day, the coach makes the decision and I think he's made enough decisions these last two years where I was like, I'm done.”
DeLaGarza has a lot of respect for Arena, stating that he’s “a good man manager and he knows how to get the best out of his players.”
DeLaGarza remembers the confidence that Arena instilled in him as a rookie. The 5’9 defender was asked to play center back in a training session due to an injury. Arena’s words were valuable as he stepped up to the task.
“I just remember Bruce saying, ‘A.J. plays center back,’” DeLaGarza said. “He said out loud, ‘Don't worry. He knows what he's doing out there.’ And I think that just gave me a ton of confidence that one, my coach knew that I could play center back. And I think that helped me grow as a person and a player. I got there for a reason. It was because of what I had done and my past and taking a chance on myself.”
In 2022, though, DeLaGarza was thinking about his options away from the field.
After the Revs lost 2-1 to the L.A. Galaxy on Aug. 28, 2022, DeLaGarza reached out to Galaxy president Chris Klein, who traded him away in 2017. The Maryland native wanted to sign a one-day contract at the end of the season to retire as a member of the Galaxy.
“I didn't feel like I was a part of the [Revs] organization really, because I had played such a small role,” DeLaGarza said. “I didn't have a connection. Obviously this was 2020 and beyond with the fans, so we're not out in the communities as much as I was back in L.A. before Covid hit. I just didn't have that relationship and I just wanted to go out where I thought I was my best. And that was in my Galaxy years, obviously.”
The loss against Real Salt Lake was, in some ways, a harbinger of things to come for the New England Revolution.
Days later, the Revs were ousted from the Concacaf Champions League by Pumas in penalties despite winning the first leg 3-0 at home. The losses to RSL and Pumas amounted to what DeLaGarza called “one of the worst weeks in Revolution history.”
More oddities occurred as the season went on as they lost to the New York Red Bulls due to an own goal and tied the Philadelphia Union after a strange late clearance went directly to a Union attacker.
Even good news couldn’t be properly celebrated. Carles Gil missed a pivotal late-season game against the Red Bulls to celebrate the birth of his first son.
Poor results are tough on players. When the team is winning, vibes are good. When the team is losing, well, it’s the opposite.
“We're all competitors and winning and losing affects us on the field,” DeLaGarza said. “It affects us at our house. It affects our families and how we interact with our kids and our wives. It's not just, oh, it's just a game and that’s all. I care about if we win or lose.”
“My wife knows if it's a tough loss to stay clear. And I'm not saying I'm mean at any point, but I'm just reliving plays in my head and just not fun to be around, I guess.”
The Revs ultimately finished the 2022 season 10-12-12 and missed the playoffs one year after setting a new single-season points record.
While excuses only go so far, the Revs dealt with a lot last season. They said goodbye to Tajon Buchanan, Matt Turner, and Adam Buksa and dealt with a myriad of injuries. They also encountered plenty of bad luck.
As you can imagine, Revs fans weren’t pleased about the season. DeLaGarza gets it. In fact, he and his teammates often use it as motivation.
“When I was younger, I had a bad game and I would hear about it from the fans and I appreciate it because that tells me they care and it puts more accountability on myself as well,” DeLaGarza said. “Like, man, I have to do better for them. They're paying money to come watch us play.”
But mentally, losing games, especially in the way the Revs did in 2022, takes a toll on players.
“When it's not there on the field, you really get into your own head and mentally you're thinking about it almost too much now, where now your feet are doing you wrong, and you have to find that balance somehow,” DeLaGarza said. “There's not a perfect answer and everybody's different. That's an unfortunate side of things, but it comes with the job that we do.”
When DeLaGarza was with the Galaxy, there was a sports psychologist that was available to the players. Arena brought one to New England during the late stages of 2022. The club still has a sports psychologist available in 2023. Additionally, the MLS Players Association has a hotline that players can use to assistance with issues such as substance abuse or behavioral health.
DeLaGarza said that sessions with a sports psychologist are kind of like therapy because “if your brain is not there and you can't read the game and you're not clear and you're not having fun, you're not enjoying it, I think that that puts a real damper on your performances.”
The meetings provided players with an opportunity to speak to someone who could give them some tips and motivation. Players are often hard on themselves, so it can be nice to speak to someone else.
While the Revs missed the playoffs in 2022, DeLaGarza is optimistic about the new season. With many of his friends still on the team, he hopes that things go their way.
“Last year, though, we said the same thing,” DeLaGarza said when asked if the Revs could do something special in 2023. “Like, we had all these pieces to be a really good team and there were times last year we were like, man, this almost comes down to luck because there are goals that we've given up that were just so bizarre or the goalie on the other side being on Team of the Week and we just couldn't put it in the back of the net. We're like, man, we just need one lucky bounce to start a little run and unfortunately that never really came to a larger extent.
“But look at the players and I think they have more depth this year. And I just think it is going to be a good year and I hope it is for them.”
When asked about his favorite memory with the Revolution, A.J. DeLaGarza pivoted to ask if it was okay to tell his least favorite memory.
“I had a bonus in my contract and it was to start and win five games and I was like, oh, that's a piece of cake, except it was very hard to get five starts,” DeLaGarza said. “But in 2021 I had five starts and on the fifth, another game where he had changed nine people, whatever it was, and it was versus Orlando.
“In Orlando, I gave up a PK then we're down 2-0. We ended up coming back late in the game, tying it 2-2. I had gotten subbed out, probably because I couldn't move anymore. I don't remember. Or because I gave up the PK. I was on the sideline just hoping for another Buksa magical ending, for the win obviously, but also so personally I could hit a bonus.”
DeLaGarza went on to say that he also has positive memories of his time in New England. He enjoyed the locker room and valued being part of the squad that lifted the Supporters’ Shield in 2021. He even considered staying in the area after retirement.
The fact that a bad memory immediately came to DeLaGarza's mind is a reminder that professional athletes are always striving to be their best. The bad moments sometimes stick out more because they’re failed opportunities
DeLaGarza is now ready to put his best efforts into his post-MLS career, which actually does include playing soccer. The defender has been training for a 7v7 tournament that will take place in Cary, North Carolina in June 2023. The winner gets a $1 million prize.
DeLaGarza is the captain of Zala FFF, which also features Lee Nguyen, Michael Ambrose, and Tony Rocha. DeLaGarza will hold open tryouts to round out the team and he wants to run it in a professional way.
One thing that’s been tough about the last few months is that DeLaGarza no longer has team officials giving him advice.
“The last 14 years of my life, I had everything written down for me: what to wear to a team meal, what to wear on the airplane, what workout we're doing this morning,” DeLaGarza said. “Here's prehab, here's this, here's lunch, here's breakfast. Like all this stuff is just given to me.”
The adjustment has been tough, but DeLaGarza sees this as an opportunity. He’s been working with a company that he describes as “Spotify for health and wellness.” He’s part of the soccer division, along with DeMarcus Beasley.
The hope is that the platform will help athletes transition to life after soccer. This isn’t easy because soccer is a major part of any professional’s identity.
“You walk away from the game and there's literally nothing,” DeLaGarza said. “You have nothing to fall back on. There's no plans, there's nobody here telling you what to eat. There's no one here telling you, ‘Yo, it's time to go run and take care of yourself and your body.’ And, I think this platform that I am a part of will help those guys and then also help them run a business if they choose to have something in that health and wellness space.”
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