No goalkeeper in the United Soccer League is playing better than the one who starts for San Antonio FC. Perhaps no goalkeeper has a better story than the one who was born in Venezuela, raised in Colombia, and discovered by accident in South Florida.
Meet Diego Alejandro Restrepo Garcia, age 29. He grew up in the shadow of car bombings from the Cali drug cartel, moved to the United States with his family at age 12, and just five months after playing his first game as a goalkeeper in middle school, made the U.S. Under-17 National team at 15.
“I’ve been blessed,” he said after a recent practice.
Blessed? Three months ago, Diego Restrepo, as he is known, didn’t have a team. After SAFC gave him a tryout and signed him to a contract in March, Restrepo started the season on the bench.
In the fifth game, starting goalkeeper Matt Cardone went down with an injured leg muscle. Restrepo entered, preserved a 2-1 victory, and has allowed only two goals since. On Friday night in Kansas City, he recorded three saves to lead San Antonio to a 1-0 victory over the Swope Park Rangers, SAFC’s fifth consecutive road win, which tied a league record.
Restrepo has gone from backup to starter to star, leading the USL with five shutouts. In seven appearances, he has faced 18 shots, made 16 saves, and become the stopper for the only undefeated club (9-0-2) in the league, and for that matter, all of North America.
“It’s awesome to be on this team,” he said.
How did he get here? The story begins in Merida, Venezuela, where he was born, and moves to Cali, where his parents relocated to start a real estate business when he was two months old. There, according to older brother Alfonso, Diego crawled with a soccer ball before he could walk. At the age of five, Diego’s earliest memory, he was kicking a ball on a field in Colombia.
What he remembers is playing soccer at recess and hearing about violence in Cali he did not understand: robberies, killings, car bombings. He did not know about Pablo Escobar or the drug trafficker’s cartel. But Diego knew his parents, Gustavo and Ligney Restrepo, wanted a safer place to live.
When he was 12, the family relocated to West Palm Beach, Fla. Diego Restrepo’s life turned during a game in eighth grade. When the goalkeeper got hurt, Restrepo switched from center back to fill in and impressed an elderly gentleman in the stands. The man, a retired 60-something soccer player from Guatemala, introduced himself as “Ozzy” after the game.Restrepo does not recall the man’s last name but remembers starting to train under him.
It takes years for goalkeepers to reach elite levels in their sport. But five months after working with Ozzy, Restrepo was asked to join the U.S. Under-17 National Team. At 15, he had caught the eye of scouts at a tournament in Orlando.
“I was really raw,” he said. “But somebody saw something in me.”
He developed through a U.S. Soccer residency program in Bradenton, Fla., and trained under Tim Mulqueen, the personal coach for U.S. national team goalkeeper Tim Howard. Restrepo earned a scholarship to the University of South Florida. Then a bright future collapsed. After 2½ years at USF, Restrepo found himself on the bench. Had the door closed on his career?
At just the right time, the University of Virginia offered a scholarship. Restrepo became an immediate starter and led the Cavaliers to the 2009 national championship. Along the way, he broke school records for shutouts in one season (16), consecutive shutouts (11) and consecutive scoreless minutes (1,176) – marks all set by Tony Meola, who represented the U.S. in three World Cups.
“It was an unbelievable year,” Restrepo said. “I went from almost quitting soccer to winning everything. I love that school. It was an experience I wish everyone could go through. It still gives me chills to talk about it.”
Another too-good-to-be-true opportunity followed. A renowned club in Colombia, América de Cali, offered a pro contract in 2011. Restrepo signed and found himself starting in front of 40,000 fans at Olímpico Pascual Guerrero stadium in Cali. Euphoria soon gave way to reality and fear. Fans did not accept losing.
“It was even hard to go to the grocery store to buy milk,” he said, “because people would start pressuring you about bad results.”
Pressure meant threats: win or else.
“Basically,” Restrepo said, “they could harm you or break your property, such as coming to the training grounds and messing up your car. It was so stressful to play in front of 40,000 people and have in the back of your mind that some idiotic fan may have made threats that the team better win. You have to remember that in Cali, there are a lot of wannabe cartel guys, and they make bets against each other in soccer.”
In Colombia, people still talk about Andrés Escobar. In 1994, he inadvertently scored an own goal in the FIFA World Cup against the U.S., and Colombia lost, 2-1. Within a week, he was shot to death with a .38-caliber pistol, reportedly in retaliation for a lost a bet on the match. Restrepo said he and his teammates did not fear they could wind up like Escobar, but noted, “We all knew it could have been a reality.”
In 2012, Restrepo jumped to a team in Venezuela, Deportivo Táhira. He spent the next two seasons with the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the North American Soccer League. Restrepo excelled as a starter the first season, winning player-of-the-week honors three times, but tore his Achilles tendon before the start of the 2014 season.
He rehabilitated and bounced between USL and NASL teams until he landed in San Antonio. SAFC Coach Darren Powell knew he was getting a great goalkeeper but also knew he had an established starter. Then Cardone got injured and Restrepo flourished.
“Diego is a talented goalkeeper,” Powell said. “When he came in, he impressed the coaching staff with his attitude, his character, his approach, and his daily work.”
Cardone will likely be sidelined until later this summer. Restrepo empathizes. He missed a season when he tore his Achilles tendon and lost his spot. What will happen when Cardone returns? Powell said he isn’t sure.
What Restrepo knows is that adversity can lead to unexpected opportunities. A benching at South Florida led to a national championship at Virginia. An injury in Tampa Bay eventually led to a series of moves that sent him to San Antonio, where he’s become the hottest goalkeeper in the league.
“It’s how God works,” Restrepo said. “He closes one door to open another one.”
From Cali to West Palm to San Antonio and so many points in between – the journey has been long and remarkable for Diego Alejandro Restrepo Garcia. As long and remarkable as that beautiful name.