U.S. Under-17 Men’s National Team forward Joe Gallardo is back to doing what he loves – playing with his teammates and scoring goals. Lots of goals.
Nearly six months after breaking his leg during a match against China PR in Mexico City, the San Diego native scored a hat trick in the USA’s 5-0 win against Cuba to kick off the World Cup Qualifying Tournament in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.
For Gallardo, it was only his second start against an international opponent since Aug. 2, 2014, the Opening Day of the Copa Mexico.
But to explain his importance to the team, let’s go back a few years.
Born in San Diego to Mexican parents, Joe began playing soccer at age 6 on his older brother’s team.
“I had a pretty strong kick since I was little – I liked to kick the ball far down the field,” Gallardo said. “I started as a defender because I liked to kick it far – take goal kicks or free kicks from the back. And I guess when I was 7, my coach noticed that I had a really good shot, so he put me up to attacking mid.”
After once scoring 10 goals for his City Height’s club team game, Gallardo joined U.S. Development Academy side Nomads. He was brought in to a U.S. Under-14 camp in Carson, California, and then another in Chula Vista. At first playing out wide, the coaches then moved him to the center forward position, where he would score four goals in four games.
As for the larger public, they got their first look at Gallardo at the 2013 Nike Friendlies in Lakewood Ranch, Florida, where on Dec. 11 the 15-year-old scored three goals in a 5-1 win against England.
“The 2013 Nike Friendlies was my favorite camp,” Gallardo said. “It was a really big tournament because we were going to play England, Portugal and Brazil – some of the top teams in the world.”
Gallardo didn’t start the first match against Portugal, though he did come in off the bench. In the second game, he let loose on England.
“Starting from the beginning of the cycle, even before the Nike Friendlies, we knew Joe was a talented player, a talented No. 9 for us that could score goals,” said U.S. U-17 MNT head coach Richie Williams. “He’s got a real No. 9 mentality. He’s active, he’s good with both feet, he runs in behind, he can play with his back to the goal, and he’s brave in the box.”
The U.S. would go on to win the tournament, defeating Brazil 4-1 in the final, and Gallardo would finish his first full year with the 98s with five goals and three assists in four matches.
“It was one of the happiest moments of my life,” he said. “I never thought I could make it that far.”
By that time, Gallardo had already moved to Mexico to join Monterrey FC’s academy. But he still joined the U-17s for matches, and he began 2014 with four goals and three assists in the team’s first seven matches.
Then came the injury.
The U.S. was defeating China PR 2-0 on the opening day of the Copa Mexico when Luca de la Torre sprung Gallardo toward the China goal. Gallardo’s touch was heavy, but he kept going. So did the goalkeeper. After the collision, Gallardo didn’t think he had broken his leg, but the doctors showed him the X-rays.
“When it happened, in my head I wondered why it happened,” Gallardo said. “But honestly, it made me stronger. I think I’m stronger mentally, and I got back to the pitch and I’m playing again.”
Rather then return to his club, Gallardo joined the U.S. Residency Program in the fall of 2014 so he could recover under the guidance of the U.S. staff.
“I’m sure it wasn’t easy for him. He had to get an operation, and had a big set-up,” Williams said. “It was important for us to keep him in Florida with us in Residency with the medical staff that we have to monitor him day in and day out. I think they did a great job getting him back to full fitness, and then obviously he had a really good mentality in terms of having the determination to be ready for qualifying.”
Being in Residency also allowed him to stay connected to his teammates.
“We talked everyday – off the field and friendly stuff,” said teammate and forward Haji Wright. “And as soon as he was able to start walking, he was trying to kick a ball. Even sitting down.”
“The doctor told me it would be four months before I could get back out,” Gallardo said. “But at three months, I started touching the ball again.”
After playing 20 minutes in a scrimmage with the 2000 class in early January of this year, Gallardo knew he was on target to be ready for the CONCACAF U-17 Championship.
“At first I was scared that it wasn’t going to feel the same, that I wasn’t going to play like I used to,” he said. “But I did everything the doctors told me to do and everything came out fine.”
On Feb. 2, Gallardo made his first appearance with his ’98 class, coming in off the bench for the final 20 minutes of a 2-0 friendly win against Panama at IMG Academy. He assisted on Josh Perez’s goal to clinch the game.
“I remember his first game back and he was clearly upset because he said to me he didn’t play very well,” Williams said. “And I was just happy that he was able to play 15 minutes and run around. I didn’t care how well he played. He’s a young man and obviously wanted to do very well. It was just a start for him and each day he’s gotten considerably sharper.”
On Feb. 20 – one week before the U-17 Championship opener – Gallardo started in a friendly against Bermuda and scored on a free kick in a 5-2 win.
“I was just excited to be on the pitch,” he said. “I just wanted to be around the ball as much as I could. I guess I had a little bit of fear of getting hit, but it was all mental. And I had gotten mentally stronger each day.”
Two days later, he was named to the 20-man roster for the CONCACAF Championship.
“His approach has been great and his mentality has been excellent,” Williams said. “He’s increased his minutes, his fitness got to a full 90 minutes, so we felt comfortable having him in there. He fits in well with the group, and they enjoy having him out on the field.”
“Joe’s looked better than ever,” Wright said. “He’s more fit, he’s able to move, he can shoot with both feet now – his left foot has gotten so much better.”
Gallardo has four goals so far at the 2015 CONCACAF U-17 Championship.
“I want to show myself that I’m still the same as before I got injured,” Gallardo said. “And I want to help the team do well in this tournament. The goal of the team is to qualify for the World Cup, and to prove to the world that we’re one of the best countries in the world and that we can compete at any level.”