by Neil Morris
Gazing out a hospitality suite at WakeMed Soccer Park, Jason Garey suddenly stops mid-sentence. “I remember scoring two goals on that goal down there,” he says, gesturing towards the south end of the main stadium.
“Just being here is funny.”
It wasn’t just any two goals, of course, but the two goals in 15 seconds that Garey scored for the University of Maryland during the semifinals of the 2005 College Cup against Southern Methodist University.
As a forward for the Terrapins, who went on to win the national title, Garey was the biggest name on a star-studded roster that included Robbie Rogers, Maurice Edu, A.J. DeLaGarza, Chris Seitz and then-freshman Graham Zusi. Garey was named the tournament’s offensive MVP, capping a stellar college career in which he became the Terrapins’ all-time leader in points (140) and goals (60).
The player who first entered Maryland on a walk-on scholarship—“they’d basically pay for my books,” says Garey—finished as winner of the Hermann Trophy, the awards given annually to the nation's best collegiate male and female soccer players.
A little more than six years later, this is Garey’s first time back to the soccer facility since hoisting the NCAA championship trophy, so long ago the park still bore its original name, SAS Soccer Park. The occasion for Garey’s return, however, is to sign on as one of the newest members of the Carolina RailHawks.
A Louisiana native, Garey has bucked expectations since he and his father, a former rugby player at Tulane, discovered soccer when Garey was a child.
“My parents actually started a soccer organization in my hometown when I was younger,” he remembers. “And I just enjoyed playing soccer. I wasn’t very big, so I played basketball, baseball, [a little] football [and] I ran track, but some reason I just took to soccer.”
During his time at St. Amant High School, Garey set a Louisiana record for career goals and won the state MVP his senior season. Surprisingly, few college programs came calling.
“No one’s coming to Louisiana to scout soccer players,” Garey says. “The biggest program closest to us was UAB [University of Alabama-Birmingham]. I visited [a lot of] places and almost no one offered me a scholarship—I had one scholarship offer from Cleveland State.”
So Garey set his sights instead on Maryland, a college soccer powerhouse. He attended the school’s camp the summer before his high school senior season, and his performance there convinced longtime head coach Sasho Cirovski to invite Garey to walk on with the Terrapins.
A month after winning the national championship at Maryland, the Columbus Crew selected Garey as the third overall pick in the 2006 Major League Soccer SuperDraft. He spent five seasons with the Crew, appearing in 83 league matches and netting 15 goals, and the club won the Supporter’s Shield in 2008 and 2009 and the 2008 MLS Cup. Still, Garey never saw the regular playing time all players—particularly strikers—need and crave.
“I know I can score goals … but I’ve never gotten the consistent play,” says Garey. “I’d start two games, be a sub the next six, not play for five, start one game…you know? So, it’s difficult when you're in that situation to ever get into a groove, where you’re feeling good, in great shape and sharp. So, the past three or four years I’ve just been looking for the opportunity to play.”
The Houston Dynamo acquired him for the 2011 season, when he saw action in 10 league matches, but the team declined to pick up Garey’s 2012 contract option.
Despite a few minimum contract offers from other MLS clubs, Garey decided to sign with the RailHawks for a number of reasons, starting with playing time.
“Do I want to stay in a league where maybe I’ll get a chance to play if some guys get hurt and I’m playing unbelievable, or do I want to come here get a better shot to play because the coach has said he wants me here?” asks Garey. “There’s a difference between signing a contract with a team and the coach wanting you to be there and be part of it.”
Beyond playing time, other considerations motivated Garey to depart MLS. His contract with the RailHawks is a one-year deal with no club option, unlike a minimum-salary MLS contract that could last as long as four years, should the club pick up the option years.
Moreover, Garey underwent hip surgery in November to repair a torn labrum and cartilage damage, a nagging problem he says has affected his play the last couple of years. Garey expects to be cleared to play around the time the RailHawks’ training camp opens on Feb. 20.
Garey says his journey back to WakeMed Soccer Park actually began a year ago.
“I had talked with [former RailHawks manager] Martin Rennie last year before I went to Houston,” Garey says.
“He was like, ‘Look, if you don’t find another [MLS] team, I’d love for you to come to Carolina.’ So I started doing a little research into that, talking to guys who have played here, and everyone has said great things about the organization. And the facilities here are better than 70 percent of MLS teams—the locker rooms, the stadium, the fields, everything. And I knew that Colin [Clarke] was a great coach from guys who have played for him and against him. So for me, it was kind of a no-brainer.”
New RailHawks head coach Colin Clarke believes Garey will fill a valuable role for the team.
“I think he’s a great finisher,” Clarke observes. “He takes his chances very, very well when they come his way. And the other thing he’s going to bring is experience and obviously leadership. He’s won championships, and he’s been a winner at every level he’s been at.”
Garey says his strength is playing though the middle, into the box and in front of goal.
“I’m a goal scorer—put me in a good position with good service and I’ll score goals,” says Garey. “I’m not terribly fast and not terribly big, but I’ve always had a knack for scoring goals. I hit the ball very cleanly, I’m pretty good in the air—I’m not the biggest guy but I have good timing—and I make good runs.”
Garey looks to the example of previous RailHawks such as Daniel Paladini and Josh Gardner, whose play at Carolina resuscitated their MLS careers, and hopes his time in the NASL might accomplish the same for him.
“I think the level in this league [NASL] is not so far off from MLS,” Garey says. “I think they’re very similar. But, this is a great feeder system for MLS, I think. As this league continues to grow and get stronger…guys are now making choices, like I made the choice between going and sitting on the bench again for another team in MLS and coming here and get to play.”
Nevertheless, Garey looks back on his time in MLS with fondness, including the terrific players he competed with and against. When asked about the best player he ever played with, Garey answers without hesitation.
"Guillermo Barros Schelotto in Columbus,” he says with a tone of near reverence. “He was unbelievable. He was MLS MVP one or two years. He was a legend down in Argentina, and he had this ability with the ball that you can’t teach or coach. He could put a pass wherever he wanted to at any time, and he hardly ever lost the ball. He was an unbelievable player, scored a lot of goals, a lot of assists, and he was definitely the best player I’ve ever played with.”
As for the best player he ever played against, however, Garey offers a somewhat surprising answer: former North Carolina Tar Heel and MLS All-Time Best XI selection Eddie Pope.
"His final season was my rookie year in MLS … He was just an unbelievable defender," Garey recalls. "He was almost impossible to get around … and he was a great leader on the field. You always knew, ‘There’s Eddie; I don’t want to get too close to him because, one, he’s probably going to steal the ball.' He was a very mild-mannered guy but so hard to play against. He was tenacious and smart—he always knew where to be so he didn’t have to be terribly physical or taking guys down. He just knew where to be.”
Beyond the pitch, Garey is an avid hunter and fisherman who enjoys angling for “specks and red” over indulging many of today’s technological trappings. He doesn’t have a personal website, a popular marketing device for many soccer players. He’s not even on Facebook or Twitter.
“I don’t want to say I hate that, but I don’t like it,” he declares. “I have my own friends and people I want to talk to I call them on the phone. I just feel like it’s too much information and too much of a distraction for me.”
Garey has also been active in a variety of social projects, mostly related to his native Louisiana. He helped raise awareness about wetlands preservation in the wake of the BP oil spill and returned to The Pelican State last month to host his first youth soccer camp.
That’s when Garey and his wife—who are expecting their first child in August—hitched up a U-Haul trailer and made the decision to move to North Carolina, where Garey hopes to reboot his soccer career at the place of its greatest triumph.
“I’ve had a decent career—I’ve played in a lot of games and played for some really good teams. But I’ve never been that go-to guy that the coaches write into the lineup every week,” he says. “So, I wanted an opportunity to come here, see if I could score a ton of goals and see what happens.
“I feel good, I’m only 27, I want to play some soccer and win some championships. I’ve won a championship at every level I’ve been so far—college, MLS—I’d like to win one here.”