We've all been there: go home, meet up with friends, grab a ball and have a bit of a kick-about. Even the pros do it. And it is a kick-about with some friends, one of the more commonplace past-times you will find, that put Irving Garcia on an uncommon journey to the US Beach Soccer Team.
"One of my best friends, he plays for the [Beach] National Team as well. He's from Arizona. Every time I visit my friends ,we go to the beach and play soccer," Garcia says from the US Beach Team's camp at the 2017 CONCACAF Beach Soccer Championship in the Bahamas. So far, so very normal.
But Garcia's friend, Oscar Reyes, thought he saw something that might help the Beach National Team and recommended his buddy to the coaching staff. Garcia joined a training camp in San Francisco; within six months he was named to the 12-man squad selected to represent the USA at the CONCACAF Championship - the qualifying tournament for this year's Beach Soccer World Cup.
"I did OK," says Garcia - who clearly did better than OK - of his first national team camp. "It's tough on the sand, especially with the players we have on the squad." Now he is one of those players.
Before you imagine the US Beach Soccer Team is a pick-up side, Irving Garcia is a professional soccer player. He was drafted by the New York Red Bulls in 2010, 50th overall, one spot above occasional US Men's National Team 'keeper Sean Johnson.
"I want to thank all the people who supported me when I was there," say Garcia of his time with RBNY. "It will always be my favorite club. It will always be in my heart. Growing up, I knew I wanted to be a soccer player: I am always grateful they gave me a chance."
Unfortunately, it was only a chance: Garcia played in four competitive games for RBNY in 2010 - all in US Open Cup - and he was released at the beginning of March, 2011. There was no NYRB II in those days, no USL squad for young players to develop and prove themselves; nor did RBNY have the same commitment to its younger players that it has today. There was the perception at the time that young players didn't get great opportunity for the Red Bulls. In 2012, after another set of prospects were punted out of the team, an anonymous source told Big Apple Soccer that the squad under head coach Hans Backe was not a good environment for a young player: "Hans knows his players and the young guys are never given a chance at even the bench. They're basically used as traffic cones in practice."
But Garcia allows himself just the briefest moment of reflection on what might have been at RBNY: "I didn't get a lot of playing time. Now that I think about it, I know I deserved it."
The time never came, despite a performance against a top-level opponent in a club friendly that drew attention and praise: "A lot of people will never forget when I played against Juventus," Garcia recalls. "A lot of people, my friends, even my family, thought I would get a game after that - but that's how it is."
He didn't get much playing time for RBNY, but he did get an education in what it takes to succeed in his chosen profession. "When I first saw [Thierry] Henry and Rafa Marquez in the locker room, I couldn't believe that they were going to be my teammates - but they were just like us," he remembers. He learned from the top players on the team, learned what it took to prepare, watched how seriously men for whom the high points of superlative careers were in the past treated their work: "Henry, Marquez, Juan Pablo Angel - those are players who work hard every day. They were in the gym before training and staying late after."
He noted the respect with which they treated less-accomplished teammates, understood the way players - regardless of achievement or reputation - should treat each other. And he left RBNY with at least one genuine friend: Garcia and Roy Miller are still close, despite not having player together since 2010.
Garcia didn't get much playing time at RBNY, but he got a start in the career he had always wanted: "For me, where I grew up, it's really hard to get out of that town: to be someone. So I'm happy with all that happened."
All that happened was a regular, if somewhat nomadic, job as a pro soccer player. Garcia went from RBNY to Antigua GFC in Guatemala (and he still follows the Red Bulls closely enough to know the two teams played each other in CONCACAF Champions League last year. He followed that with a stint in USL, more time in Guatemala (for Rosario FC), another run in USL - he's been around. And when time allowed, he would return home for the occasional kick-about with friends.
San Luis, Arizona might be the sort of town a player has to leave to make it as a pro soccer player, but is also very much responsible for making Garcia a national-team Beach player. San Luis, Arizona is where Irving Garcia learned sand.
"I grew up in the desert. My backyard is all desert - so I'm kind of used to it," he says. Beach Soccer is a different game from the one played on grass. For a start, it's five-a-side, played over three 12-minute periods. The 12-man squad is extensively used: subs flow in and out of the match. And, of course, the game is played on sand. The ball doesn't travel across sand as it does on grass, so players try to get the ball in the air as much as possible. Headers, volleys, bicycle kicks: these are the tools of the Beach player's trade. They are also the tools Garcia developed to be able to play in his backyard.
The CONCACAF Beach Soccer Championship is Garcia's first major tournament with the US Beach Team. He has spent a career playing on grass and now he's a 29-year-old novice on the sand. Except, of course, he knows sand: "I grew up just playing that same way. When I'm in, I know it's a big tournament - I just feel comfortable."
The Beach Team's head coach, Eddie Soto, has tasked Garcia with being one of the squad's creators: "He wants me to be more of a spark, it's hard but...," there is a smile in his voice as he perhaps recalls past training sessions. He credits his national team coach with giving him confidence, "When I have that confidence, I know I am a good player."
He picked up his first two goals of the current tournament in the USA's last group stage game, a 5-1 win over Trinidad and Tobago.
Next up is a quarterfinal against Panama, a dangerous opponent that emerged from a difficult group featuring regional heavyweight El Salvador and highly-rated Costa Rica. Panama looked the third-best team in the group on paper, it emerged as second-best - and didn't lose in regulation (El Salvador beat Los Canaleros on penalties; Panama pipped Los Ticos in a shoot-out). But to get to the 2017 World Cup, a team must make the final of this tournament. The USA isn't fretting about any particular opponent, because it wants to beat every team it plays in this competition.
"Panama - they're a good team," says Garcia. "But we're not focusing on them, because if we play like we know we can, we can beat any team here."
There is also an emotional element to this competition for Garcia. About six months ago, roughly the same sort of time he was starting his whirlwind journey to the Beach Team, his father-in-law passed away: "This tournament is dedicated to him."
He could be excused a narrow focus on the task at hand, but before returning to his preparations for the Panama game, Garcia has one final message for RBNY fans: "Tell all the people that I am very thankful for all things, and I am really happy to represent my country."