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Mar 1, 2008

Garcia's star continues to rise

They told the kid to hold onto the ball and distribute it quickly. Don't try to beat anyone. Don't dare. These players, older, bigger and stronger, would simply take him out. At least, that's what they thought.

However, Felix Garcia never listened to the PDL (Premier Development League) Survival 101 pep talk he received from Laredo Heat management last season. So what if he was supposedly overmatched on the pitch.

Felix Garcia doesn't back down from anyone.

His fearless game, lightning fast, full of energy, has brought him here: In three months, Garcia has gone from a relative unknown to a member of the U.S. men's under-20 national team.

Yes, Felix Garcia, just 17, could be a star in the making.

"Felix is just so tenacious," said Laredo owner Shashi Vaswani. "On the field, he doesn't care who you are. He will take you on."

Vaswani laughs about it now, but he was one of the guys who told Garcia to know his limits. He was only looking out for the skinny striker, who was a sophomore at Lyndon Baines Johnson High School in Laredo, Texas, when Laredo signed him up last spring.

Laredo coach Israel Collazo discovered Garcia playing for LBJ. His game was raw -- and it still is. But Collazo liked Garcia's technical skills and saw a player with great vision for the game.

"[Back then] Felix was like looking at a peacock," says Laredo general manager J.J. Vela. "When you see one, you are like 'That's an ugly bird.' Then he sprouts his wings and it's like 'That's a beautiful bird.' When Felix starts playing it's like 'wow.'"

Laredo played Garcia, a first generation Mexican-American, sparingly in its first 10 games last year. However, if he was to develop, Collazo said, Garcia needed more playing time. Even if he was overmatched. So Collazo gave Garcia, who is 6-foot-2, 165 pounds, more time in the last six games of the regular season. He took off, literally. One local newspaper wrote that Garcia "had jets on his feet."

He took on one, sometimes even two players at a time, 20-somethings with Division I and pro experience. Yes, Garcia held onto the ball, just like Heat officials told him to. But Garcia attacked defenders, burning them with his footwork, or simply blowing by them. Said Vaswani: "Felix scared the hell out of everyone with his speed."

Garcia finished the season with six goals. He scored the game-winner in a 1-0 win over Fresno in the PDL semifinals and capped off his rookie season by scoring the deciding penalty kick in the Heat's 1-0 (4-3) win against the Michigan Bucks in the PDL championship.

"At first, it was unusual for me when they told me [to tone down my game]," said Garcia through Vela, serving as an interpreter. "But for me, it really wasn't a big deal. I have been playing against older kids since I was a kid. The other thing that helped me is that I'm almost as big as them."

Laredo knew Garcia was a special player, but his takeoff could come even sooner. So last September, Vaswani put out a feeler phone call to U.S. soccer national coach Juan Carlos Michia about Garcia.

Michia invited Garcia to an ODP training session in Brownsville, Texas, two months later. There were no guarantees, of course, but Garcia made an impression. Last month, U.S. U-20 men's coach Thomas Rongen named Garcia to the team.

"Felix deserves a shot and I'm happy we gave him one," Rongen says. "He is a very interesting talent. Felix plays street ball, which isn't a bad thing, but his game needs to develop. He does have potential."

Garcia flashed that potential in his international debut for the U.S. at the Copa Chivas tournament in Guadalajara, Mexico, in January. He led the team with three goals in five games (the U.S. went 1-1-3) and could end up representing the U.S. in the 2009 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Egypt.

"We liked his finishing ability," Rongen says. "Any time he's around the goal he's on target. Even under pressure, he has that instinct for the net. Felix has big-game ability."

That game could take Garcia well beyond Laredo.

In fact, the Heat have already come to terms with the fact that, because of obligations to the U.S. team, Garcia likely won't be able to play in the PDL this season.

No matter.

Garcia says he always will be playing for Laredo. "It's an emotion I've never felt before," he says. "But I want to represent the Heat and the whole Laredo community. I'm so proud to be able to do that."

Justin Rodriguez covers the USL for ESPNsoccernet. He is the soccer writer for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., and can be reached at jrod_showtime@yahoo.com.