As we count down the days until the MLS season begins, we will be looking at 25 players from greater Philadelphia who have made an impact on the league 25 years after the first ball was kicked. Read the rest of the series at brotherlygame.com/philly-mls-25.
Dan Gargan scrapped together one of the finest careers of any Philadelphia area soccer player during the first twenty-five years of Major League Soccer.
The Olney native and Chestnut Hill Academy graduate played in 185 regular season games, logging over 13,000 minutes, with another 389 playoff minutes. Over his nine years in MLS, Gargan experienced several career-defining moments, yet the highlight for him was the final nineteen minutes he played in the 2014 MLS Cup when Robbie Keane’s extra-time winner secured the title for the L.A. Galaxy in Landon Donovan’s final game. The championship held special meaning because it was his first and only MLS trophy but also because it symbolized what he endured to get there.
“It was a moment of fulfillment,” Gargan said in a recent interview, “the culmination of a long journey.”
A seven-year MLS veteran prior to the 2014 season, Gargan had battled through career highs and lows and just suffered one those lows with the San Jose Earthquakes. He’d been at this stage of his career before, actually lower, and was prepared to face the next challenges in life. Even if that meant away from the game.
Gargan’s struggles went back a year before when his contract expired with the Chicago Fire, where he started 28 out of 31 games in a season and a half and established himself as one of the more reliable outside defenders in the league. The Fire, however, had other plans.
“I felt I deserved a new contract, but they wanted to negotiate and I wasn’t ready to go through a negotiation, so I became a free agent. I loved Chicago.”
Gargan left Chicago for San Jose and Frank Yallop, who tried to sign him years earlier when he hit his first career crossroad in Colorado. San Jose had won the Supporters’ Shield in 2012, so Gargan was excited to join a team competing for an MLS Cup.
“I go to San Jose and Yallop resigns five games into the season,” he said. “It was a tough year on the field and off the field. I married my wife, pulled her out of a career she started in Chicago, and now we’re in San Jose without the coach who brought me in.”
Gargan made eight appearances in 2013, the fewest of any season during his career. Afterward, he and his wife took a thirty-five day trip throughout Southeast Asia to organize their thoughts. “We reconnected with what was important in our lives.”
When Gargan returned from Asia, he called Bruce Arena. “I knew what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be. I went to preseason with the Galaxy then tore my quad three days in. I had no contract but made enough of an impression that I was the last man signed before the season. I played some of the best years of my career.”
In 2014, Gargan started 27 of 29 games, led all MLS defenders with five assists, and the Galaxy finished three points behind the Seattle Sounders for the Supporters’ Shield. Gargan appeared in every playoff game as the Galaxy rolled through the opening rounds and beat the Sounders on away goals in the Western Conference Finals.
Three days before the MLS Cup, Gargan’s daughter was born, but upon her birth she was in distress, having difficulty breathing, and was immediately rushed to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. “I was in the NICU with her 72 hours leading up to the final. I met the team that morning. I missed a start, came in during overtime, and was on the field for the winner. It was an incredible year.”
What may be even more impressive about Gargan’s MLS career is how it started. Before college, he played for FC Coppa alongside Bobby Convey, Jeff Curtin, Brian Devlin, Jeff Tuman, Justin Sadler, and many others who went on to distinguished college and pro careers. After four years at Georgetown in which he was captain the final two and earned All-Big East and South Atlantic Regional All-American honors, Gargan had to wait until the fourth round of the MLS Supplemental Draft, essentially the eighth round, for his name to be called.
The Colorado Rapids selected him with the 43rd pick, two spots after Chris Wondolowksi and two spots ahead of his high school teammate and good friend Jeff Larentowicz. But Gargan was never deterred by his place in the pecking order.
“We’re from Philadelphia. We always have something to prove.”
The trio from the fourth round had as much success as any other players taken in the draft that season or possibly any season. Wondolowski is the leading scorer in MLS and Larentowicz ranks fifth in total minutes played.
“In MLS, you weren’t worth much unless you were on the national team or Generation Adidas,” Gargan said. “The supplemental picks filled out a roster for the reserve league. They discredit the spirit of the athlete. I didn’t mind having a character to chase after. I felt disrespected but also a sense of gratitude for the Rapids. I used it as motivation.”
For Gargan, he found comfort in knowing that he was starting his pro career with Larentowicz.
“Jeff and I played on every single team together. He was one of the best men at my wedding, and I was the best man in his.” At Chestnut Hill, the two led the soccer team to three Inter-AC championships and were also leading scorers on the basketball team their senior year. “He was in all my classes. We got along well. He’s a sarcastic dude and a competitor. Our relationship grew in high school. We both attended academic institutions that did well in soccer and had similarly-aligned goals. We always wanted to play professionally.”
High school teammates Gargan and Larentowicz (bottom left) facing off in MLS opener right now. Top right is me. pic.twitter.com/TQ1SnzuPG4— Bryan Armen Graham (@BryanAGraham) March 7, 2015
Gargan and Larentowicz went to combines together, including one with the Revolution, who drafted Larentowicz and remained his home the first five years of his career. “Our paths were very different,” Gargan said. “He went into an environment with guys like Shalrie Joseph, Pat Noonan, Taylor Twellman, and Matt Reis and was able to understudy some true pros. I jumped into a building roster and got minutes early on. It was a wild experience to be having at the same time.”
Gargan recalled their first seasons and the constraints financially to pursue their dreams.
“Rookies were getting paid like $11,700, trying to scrape together lunches, buy beers.” It wasn’t until his career had ended that Gargan realized how far they’d come. “It hit me when I was covering Atlanta in the final.” Gargan by then was working as a color analyst for Fox Sports South and Larentowicz was the captain for Atlanta United, leading them to the 2018 MLS Cup.
“I was sitting in the locker room with Jeff, pounding beers, interviewing Arthur Blank. It reminded me of the moments in college, drinking Natty Lights and playing quarters. It was quite a parallel. We were competitors. We had a unique friendship, a high level of respect, a similar willingness to win. Bonds can be powerful things.”
Throughout his career, Gargan discovered something just as powerful. The desire to succeed.
Perhaps the single defining moment of his career occurred during his third season with the Colorado Rapids in 2007. Up until then, his MLS career was on an upward trajectory. After playing 49 games for the Rapids and improving every season, Gargan earned an invitation to Bob Bradley’s pre-Olympic qualifying training camp and was on the verge of a Commissioner’s pick in the MLS All-Star game. But he soon entered the darkest moment of his career, one in which led to his early retirement from the game.
“I separated my shoulder against Red Bulls at home and finished the game. We had no subs so I played the last twenty-five minutes taped up without being able to move. I tried to gut it out. My options were either they shoot me up and I have surgery after the season or I have surgery now. I chose to play. My first game back against the Revs I tore my ACL. I’d never been hurt in my career up to that point.”
Rapids coach Fernando Clavijo told Gargan that he wanted him to be a starter on opening day the next season, over four months after his surgery, a ridiculous recovery time only achieved by freaks of nature like Adrian Peterson and Jerry Rice. A typical ACL recovery, even among elite athletes, hovers between six and eight months. “For the next four and half months, I spent ten hours a day in the gym, rehabbing two injuries. I made it a mission to get back on the field.
“Opening day was against the Galaxy, against Beckham and the show. I got cleared to play, wasn’t on the game day roster, then my contract was cut the day after the game.” At that time, Gargan was first approached by Frank Yallop about moving to San Jose but while Colorado held his rights, they also controlled his future. “That was my whole identity. I didn’t know what to do. I was giving my life for peanuts and that was what happened?”
Preki, the head coach at Chivas, bought Gargan’s rights, and he traveled to Los Angeles with his own reservations. “It didn’t feel right. I didn’t like the taste of the way it just unfolded. You don’t know what you are after surgery. I asked ‘is this what it’s supposed to feel like?’ I just met my future wife. I felt like I was walking into the same non-committal contract from Chivas. It all just felt wrong. I questioned whether I wanted to continue.”
So Gargan retired and tried to put his marketing degree to use. “I had to live with that decision, watching my buddies and friends moving on. The toughest thing about being a pro athlete is that the game moves on. Before I thought I was super important, then someone else takes your spot.”
When asked about the impact of his retirement on the future of his career, he said, “It was everything. I had quite a few epiphanies.” After a year away from the game, Gargan was unsuccessful finding a job amid the financial collapse, and in 2009 he signed with the Puerto Rico Islanders, then playing in the United Soccer League. The Islanders beat Toronto FC 1-0 away in the CONCACAF Champions League Preliminary round to advance to the group stage where they faced Columbus, Saprissa, and Cruz Azul and were eliminated on the final day.
Gargan credits that mirror moment after Colorado for altering the rest of his career. “I improved my focus and cherished what those moments mean. I studied, refined my craft, tried to be better, all the things that elevate your game. I was blessed with athleticism, but I couldn’t rely on those things. I started to watch game tape, break down opponents. I became a better player because of it.”
Gargan’s performances led to a move to Toronto the following season where he started 25 games in a season and a half and helped Toronto win a Canadian Cup as well as another Champions League berth the following season before he was traded to the Fire. While with Toronto in 2010, Gargan had the opportunity to play in his hometown stadium for the first time.
“It was unreal,” he said of PPL Park. “I had a ton of family and friends there. I have such a passion for Philadelphia.” Gargan had an assist on Toronto’s only goal and pulled his hamstring in the 89th minute before the Union scored in extra time to secure a 2-1 win. But Gargan was happy to be a part of it. “Hearing the shit talk from Philadelphia fans was so enjoyable as a visiting player, to absorb it. I don’t think people knew I was from Philly. I wish I could have played there.”
As the Union prepares for its first CONCACAF Champions League action, Gargan shared some of his experiences of the competition. His 21 appearances are among the most by any Philadelphia area player. “They are tough games. Different from MLS or international friendlies. It’s tough to go out and get results. The environments all over the board, and the teams are really good.”
Gargan said there are many “diamonds” hiding throughout the region and recalled playing against Honduran international Emilio Izaguirre who was then with CD Motagua. “He was nasty, skinned me. It took the first forty-five minutes to catch up with his pace.” Izaguirre left for Celtic the following season and was named the Scottish Premier League’s Player of the Year, eventually winning twelve trophies in Glasgow.
“They ping the ball all over you at home. The more the MLS teams got into it, the more you expect it. MLS handles itself better than it did in the past. Everybody wants to beat the MLS teams. That’s what I loved about playing with the Galaxy, everybody played their best game against us.”
Gargan now splits his time as an analyst for Atlanta United with Fox, as a general manager for Lou Fusz Sports Academy in St. Louis, and as a father to four children under the age of six.
Despite the twists and turns of a ten-year pro career with one year off in between, he looks back with much gratitude and zero regrets. “It was really special. I don’t know if I’d do it any different.”