Photos Courtesy of Jessica Stone Hendricks Photography. Illustration by Nathan Heintschel
The great goal scorers in world football all share a similar mentality and a voracious need to score more goals. It pushes the player to make the extra run that puts them in the right position to finish the play and put the ball in the back of the net.
The Richmond Kickers’ newest number 10, Joe Gallardo, is using that mentality, not only to score goals for the Kickers, but to also redirect his career path and reach the levels of play that seemed predestined during the latter stages of his youth career.
“I'm never satisfied,” Gallardo said. “I always want more. It's to the point where I've missed out on so many years that I just want to go all out and prove myself, right now."
Photo © Jessica Stone Hendricks Photography
Gallardo grew up in San Diego, Ca., and, thanks to the influence of his father, Jose, he often had a soccer ball at his feet or a Club América match on the television. During his first years in the local youth leagues, Gallardo was modeling his game after Club América’s star striker, Cuauhtémoc Blanco Bravo, who’s finishing abilities influenced Gallardo’s own ruthlessness inside the box.
As his talents matured, Gallardo and his teammates at Nomads SC dominated tournament competitions, including a 6-0-0 sweep of the Dallas Cup in 2011. His individual performance at the Dallas Cup piqued the interest of Mexican club, C.F. Monterrey, who’s scouts were at the tournament.
On top of strong performances for Nomads, Gallardo was starting to make a name for himself in the USSF Development Academy, and he earned the number nine jersey on the U15 Boys National Team. Gallardo was one of the youngest players selected for the Development Academy Select Game in 2011, and, of course, he scored the opening goal in a 4-1 rout.
When reflecting on his first call up to play for the United States, Gallardo is filled with pride and he is still slightly incredulous that he earned a spot for the Stars and Stripes.
“I was honestly just really happy about it because I never thought that it would happen,” Gallardo said. “Once I got my opportunity, I took advantage of it and I felt like I did really well every time that I got called in, and I always tried to prove myself. My dad always motivated me to be the best on my team where I was at, so that really drove me to be the best on the team at that age group. I feel like I did really well and I got my name out there.”
Monterrey’s interest in Gallardo grew the following year, and he completed his move to the club in December 2012 – right before his 15th birthday. Making the switch to the Mexican club’s youth academy meant that he needed to adapt quickly.
“[Signing with Monterrey] really helped me out,” Gallardo said.” I saw a new perspective in soccer. I feel like the development system over there [in Mexico] is a lot better than in the U.S. at the moment – it’s always been. They have a good pro system. They try and get [their youth players] to the first team. So, I feel like that always motivated me to get onto the first team.
While Gallardo never made it onto Monterrey’s first team, the training he received at the academy was invaluable as he started making a name for himself on the U17 Boys National Team and was scoring goal after goal for the squad.
Gallardo was the center point of former U17’s coach Richie Williams’ trident that shelled the English and Brazilian teams to the tune of 5-1 and 4-1 score lines, respectively, and won the 2013 Nike International Friendlies tournament.
He notched a hat trick against England while finding the back of the net one more time against Brazil. The San Diego native caught the attention of several overseas clubs along with his teammates Haji Wright and Christian Pulisic -- both of whom would go on to sign with German clubs FC Schalke 04 and Borussia Dortmund. However, Gallardo returned to Monterrey to fulfill his own contractual obligations only to see his career trajectory derailed by major injuries.
I'm never satisfied. I always want more. It's to the point where I've missed out on so many years that I just want to go all out and prove myself, right now.
During the opening match of the 2014 Copa México de Naciones against China, Gallardo was on the wrong end of a two-footed challenge that saw the striker leave the match early. The x-rays showed that he had a fractured tibia, and he was sidelined for six months to recover with US Soccer doctors.
He returned to the national team camp in March 2015, following a successful rehab, to help the squad qualify for the 2015 U17 World Cup. Again, the forward bagged an international hat trick during the United States’ 5-0 shellacking of Cuba, and his career trajectory appeared to be ascending again. However, unfortunately for Gallardo, he fractured his tibia when he collided with a keeper at training, and he had to enter the recovery process for the second time in as many years.
On his second return from injury, Gallardo chose to leave Monterrey -- a decision that he acknowledges as difficult to make but necessary.
"I'll always have love for that club because they nurtured me for three years,” Gallardo said. “But it just got to a point where decisions were being made behind the scenes that were kind of affecting me on the field so that's why I felt the need to leave, but I'll always have love for the club. It just wasn't for me anymore and that's why I decided to leave."
I was honestly just really happy about it because I never thought that [getting called up] would happen. Once I got my opportunity, I took advantage of it and I felt like I did really well every time that I got called in, and I always tried to prove myself. My dad always motivated me to be the best on my team where I was at, so that really drove me to be the best on the team at that age group. I feel like I did really well and I got my name out there.
Gallardo made the move to Florida and join the MLS’ Orlando City franchise, and played, specifically, for the club’s developmental side. Gallardo joined Orlando City B in 2017 when he was 19 and the differences, compared to the Mexican development systems, were immediately apparent.
“Playing pro is a much, much faster game,” Gallardo said. “I just felt like there was more athleticism [and] tactics and all of the stuff that the coach wanted. Other than that, I felt fine.”
On top of the different stylistic philosophies and level of competition between the Mexican leagues and the American soccer pyramid, Gallardo was also making the jump into a bonafide professional atmosphere.
After overcoming injuries and regaining his confidence in his body, Gallardo faced another unforeseen challenge. Orlando City B decided to forgo the 2018 season in the, then, United Soccer League and opted to resume play as a founding member of USL League One in 2019. Gallardo found himself without a team, and, without having an agent, found himself outside of the game for an entire year.
"Last year I didn't get on a team,” Gallardo said. “It was just a really tough time for me because I went on a couple trials and it just didn't work out. I didn't have an agent so it was really tough for me [to find opportunities]. But I feel like I learned a lot from last year. I learned to value the game more and I learned to work on my mental strength, and I think it really helped me.
"I learned a lot from it and that's why I'm hungrier than ever to just get back at it again and try and get to the top. I felt like I could be at the same level as Christian [Pulisic], I feel like I could be at the same level as Haji [Wright], I feel like I could be at the same level as all of them, I just need my opportunity to prove myself and to just get back on track. That's my main goal right now is to, hopefully, bounce back harder than ever."
Photo © Jessica Stone Hendricks Photography
Gallardo knew of the title-winning history of the Richmond Kickers prior to his signing and signing with the team further increased his knowledge and appreciation for the team’s legacy -- a legacy that he wishes to grow.
He joined the Kickers to remake himself at a time when the Richmond Kickers were doing the same. The forward has the same aspirations as the club in terms of reinvigorating a winning mentality that yields silverware, playing an exciting style of soccer, and, of course, scoring more goals than just his four on the season so far.
I've been through so much and there's been moments where I thought about quitting but my parents and I always told myself that that's not the answer and I just kept pushing through it.
"I'm still not satisfied,” Gallardo said. “We haven't accomplished anything as a team, yet. I feel like we can win the league if everyone just gets on the right page, and I feel like we're starting to do that. I'm just hungrier and hungrier than ever. People were asking me, 'why didn't I celebrate the goal I scored [against Chattanooga]?' To me, mentally, I felt like I could've done more in the game."
It’s that same mentality that attracted Head Coach David Bulow to Gallardo in the first place.
“I knew from the first 30 seconds of watching highlights of Joe, he was a very special talent,” Coach Bulow said. “I knew his game would fit perfectly in the way I want my team to play, and the freedom that attacking players have in my system would suit him perfectly. He expressed that he was looking for an opportunity to get his pro career going, so I knew we’d not only be bringing on a high-level player but one who is hungry and eager to prove himself as a pro.
“I think we’ve done a really good job of creating a good culture in the dressing room with not only quality players, but more so quality people. Joe is respectful, hard working and gets along with everyone. It could be easy for a player with Joe’s past to be a bit arrogant or entitled, but he fits in well with the team and wants nothing more than to help the Richmond Kickers get back to their winning tradition.”
The move to Richmond has yielded another opportunity for Gallardo. Currently, his sister is stationed at Fort Lee in nearby Petersburg, Va. and the siblings are able to enjoy some semblance of home all the way in central Virginia -- a coincidence not lost on Gallardo that the California kids could reconnect on the other side of the country.
"She's been based here for a couple of years so when I say the timing was right [to join the Kickers], the timing was right. I feel like this is where I need to be at the moment. Everything seems to be fitting in."
Furthermore, the opportunity to play in Richmond has uplifted the rest of Gallardo’s family, thousands of miles away.
"It's been really, really hard on my parents, mainly on my dad,” Gallardo said. “My dad's joy sometimes comes from me doing well in soccer, and, since I've not been doing well the past three seasons, it's been really hard on him. I'm just happy that he's happy for me right now at the moment."
A major benefit for Gallardo was the chance to join a team with an attacking mentality that began with its manager, Coach Bulow who scored his fair share of goals during his time as a player for the Richmond Kickers.
The early-season opening salvo of goals that Gallardo scored were only a taste of what’s expected to come according to his coach.
“He’s only going to get better as he grows more comfortable in our system and learns his teammates,” Coach Bulow said. “Of course, he’s going to be a marked man, so he’ll have to learn to cope with physical play and being marked out of the game at times, but if there’s anyone in the league that can deal with that expectation and pressure, it’s Joe.
“I was not surprised to see him score a goal of that quality [against Greenville], but, in real time, I didn’t realize how special it was. He’s got great feet, he’s quick, he can go left or right, he always keeps defenders on their toes. I don't think the technical staff or his teammates would be surprised if he tops that goal by the end of the season.”
As of now, Gallardo is relishing his role as Coach Bulow’s number 10. The center forward leads the team in goals scored, shots, chances created, and he adds tenacity in transition with the second most duels won. His performances earned a Player of the Month nomination from USL League One and a Team of the Week nod in week four along with Goal of the Week in week four.
I felt like I could be at the same level as Christian [Pulisic], I feel like I could be at the same level as Haji [Wright], I feel like I could be at the same level as all of them, I just need my opportunity to prove myself and to just get back on track.
Gallardo always believed that playing in Europe would be a possibility for himself, and he knows the work he needs to put in to get himself back on the path that was laid ahead of him on the U17 National Team. With the recent reorganization of the American soccer pyramid, the path is lining up again for Gallardo with an opportunity to succeed in the USL League One and move up the tiers.
On top of playing first division soccer domestically and abroad, a chance to earn another call up to the national team ranks also sits in the back of Gallardo’s mind. Making the roster for the Stars and Stripes would bring the tribulations of his career full circle and set a new benchmark for himself as a soccer player.
"It's always been an honor for me to play for the national team,” Gallardo said. “I think I would be really proud of myself because I've been through so much and there's been moments where I thought about quitting but my parents and I always told myself that that's not the answer and I just kept pushing through it. I feel like it would just be a really amazing feeling to get called back up. Right now, there's a lot to prove, a lot of work to be done, and I know it's going to be tough but anything is possible."
Most importantly, despite the dreams of playing internationally for club and country, Gallardo’s focus remains on the upcoming game ahead of him as he works to improve with his teammates and win for the Kickers.
But, when the subject of Chelsea FC’s need for youthful attackers to replace aging center forwards Gonzalo Higuain and Olivier Giroud, coupled with Chelsea’s recent signing of his former teammate, Pulisic, a wry smile shoots across Gallardo’s face.
“Maybe one day.”