Its a cold spring afternoon in Halifax but the air is electric.
As the scoreboard ticks over into the 28th minute a deflected pass finds its way into the feet of Kodai Iida, close to the opposition box. Two defenders grapple with him before he can play a pass. After wriggling free from the first challenge, he's hauled down by the second and the referee doesn't hesitate. Free-kick Wanderers, 20-yards out. From The Kitchen there is a roar. There is always a roar.
Players take up their positions in the box; a five man wall blocks the goal but Wanderers, taking advantage of a recent rule change, create their own wall just ahead of them. After a moment’s pause, Iida begins his run up.
On the goal line, the opposition ‘keeper crouches, searching for a good view of the kick. On the edge of the 18-yard-box, the wall tenses itself and begins to jump.
And to the left of them, barely registering as a threat, Akeem Garcia suddenly comes to life.
In a flash he’s off, full of purpose, sensing something that no-one else does. He spins his marker and darts towards the penalty spot before the ball is even kicked.
It's May 4, 2019, and HFX Wanderers are searching for their first ever goal.
Nestled at the foothills of Trinidad’s hilly Northern Range, 30 kilometers from the capital Port of Spain, sits the city of Arima. For more than a century it's been the most easterly settlement in Trinidad, serving as the only pathway to the eastern seaboard. For the leading scorer of HFX Wanderers FC, this city is home.
“I'm from an area (of Arima) called Calvary. It's a small town” reflects Akeem Garcia from the dugout of the Wanderers Grounds. “A good town.”
Growing up, he took to football quickly and joined local side Arima Ball Masters at the age of 6. His father, he acknowledges, was a big influence during those early years. “He never missed a game… him or my mum, really. I’m grateful”.
With their support Garcia quickly established himself as one of the top prospects in his area and started moving through the age groups, scoring for fun in the process.
“At youth level I always scored a lot of goals. I was playing for the U15s at 12 years of age, and when I was 15 I played for the U17s and U18s. On a Sunday I’d play for the U15 side at 2pm, then again for the U17 side at 4pm” he says, laughing at the memory. “All in one day.”
He was still at school in St Augustine when the realization hit that the game he got so much joy from was exactly the thing he wanted to spend his life doing. It was an epiphany he hasn’t forgotten.
“I remember it clearly” he says, smiling.
He was 14 years old at the time but had developed enough of a buzz that Shawn Cooper, the Trinidad & Tobago U17 national coach, contacted him about coming along for the tryouts. “I didn’t play much because I was 14. Maybe, like, one game. But the coach told me I was there for the experience”.
It was an experience that crystallized what he wanted to do with his life. “I just remember saying to myself afterwards ‘Okay, I want to be a professional footballer', and that was that”
Three years later he had his wish, signing for San Juan Jabloteh FC in the top-tier of Trinidadian football. A move to W Connection FC soon followed and it was here he played some of his best football. Naturally, this led to attention from the national team and before long regular call-ups to the Trinidad & Tobago U17 and then U20 national sides.
“A top national team prospect” is how well-respected Trinidadian sports journalist Lasana Liburd described him. Everything was going to plan, but then...
“It was at the (T&T) U23 tryouts” Garcia says, sighing. “I knew I was going to make the team but I wanted to train, I really wanted to… but I regret training that day.”
The day in question was wet. Heavy rain had fallen in the morning and the pitch was slick and slippery. Garcia was wearing screw-in studs.
“I stuck my foot in the ground and tried to turn” he remembers. “My whole body went one way but the studs stayed stuck in the ground”
“I actually didn’t know at first, but when I got home I saw the swelling…”
At first he tried to ice it, but that didn’t help.
“So I went for an MRI” he says, blowing out his cheeks. It was a torn ACL.
The free-kick is struck hard and low but fails to beat the wall. As the ball cannons off a players' leg and hits the ground the Forge defenders recalibrate their surroundings, eyes frantically tracking flashes of navy blue.
The balls' flight is short and looks set to land somewhere around the penalty spot. Orange shirts turn left and right in panic. Most Wanderers players stand still, watching. One doesn’t.
After spinning his marker Akeem Garcia has continued his run. Only Forge ‘keeper Tristan Henry can see what’s coming next and desperately charges from his line. Both players have an equal distance to travel to get to the ball, but one has two extra limbs with which to reach it.
As Henry throws his body downwards, Garcia stretches out a leg.
The ball connects.
The journey back was a long one. After four months deliberating over the best course of action, Garcia and his family decided on surgery. From there, he spent another eight months on the sidelines. It was a heavy burden for someone so focused on his career. Garcia exhales at the memory. There were doubts. Of course there were doubts.
“At first it changed my style. I would just focus on just getting the ball into the back of the net and protecting myself. You just don't want to get injured again, you know?”
The injury also had an effect on his search for a new club, with agents and coaches wary of taking a chance on him after suffering such a serious injury.
Luckily, there was someone close by who could see a light at the end of the tunnel.
“For me, the most influential person in my career is Coach King (HFX Wanderers Assistant Coach Derek King). I came out of knee surgery and he did so much to help me to come back. I can’t thank him enough”
As Garcia approached full fitness it was King, then head-coach of Trinidadian club side North East Stars, who decided to take a gamble. Empathy, perhaps, played a part. After all, his own career was cut short at 27 due to a similar injury. Whatever the reason, since that moment the two’s careers have been inseparable.
“He has a genuine heart. He’s kind” Garcia says of his mentor. “Every team he goes to, I just go”
After a Pro League winning season with North East Stars, which included 11 goals for Garcia, the pair moved on to Santa Rosa FC. It was here last year that they won the league alongside fellow Wanderer Andre Rampersad – a player Garcia speaks highly of.
“When coach said Andre was coming (to Santa Rosa) that made me want to join them. He was the most outstanding player last year, really. I played all over – on the wing, in midfield, in attack, but Andre was the most outstanding.”
Playing abroad had long been an ambition of Garcia’s and towards the end of the year he started to hear whispers of the Canadian Premier League.
Like many Trinidadians he had a passing curiosity towards it due to the presence of former national team coach Stephen Hart. He had met Hart during his time with the Trinidad & Tobago U20 team. It was also the Wanderers boss who gave him his first call-up to the Trinidad senior team at 18. Despite this, Garcia didn’t anticipate any interest.
After returning from a two-week trial with Mexican side Celeya FC, a phone call changed all that.
“After hearing about it I said ‘you know what, I want to come’” he says. “I had the chance to make history, to be one of the first Trinidadian players in the Canadian Premier League.”
A cold and wet Halifax spring awaited the new arrivals. Temperatures stayed below zero well into April, and May wasn’t much warmer. The rain seemed endless and the sky was an eternal grey. For the players coming from the heat of Trinidad, Colombia, and Peru it was always going to be a challenge. Fortunately, this was something Garcia was prepared for.
“It was cold but, like, you have to know what you want” he says. “I’d heard stories of people going abroad and then it’d get cold and they’d want to come home. I didn’t come here with that attitude. I came here to stay and play for HFX Wanderers”
Armed with this determination, Garcia settled well into his new environment, though there was one aspect of his new life that came as a surprise: the attention he’d get when out and about in the city.
“When I go out to eat and people recognize me… I’ve never had that before” he says, grinning. “It’s nice. I remember being younger and watching my country play. I’d see players I loved like Carlos Edwards and want an autograph or picture”
On the pitch, the season started with a difficult trip out west to Vancouver Island. Wanderers produced a timid performance in a 1-0 defeat versus Pacific, but the following weekend’s action couldn’t have been any different.
On May 4, Forge FC arrived at the Wanderers Grounds the pundits’ early favorite to top the Spring Season standings. It was a chilly, blustery afternoon and the stadium was packed.
“The atmosphere was crazy, man” Garcia reflects. “I’ve never seen anything like that before”
And so it was that the boy from Arima made history. In the 28th minute of an open, frantic game he reacted quickly to a deflected Kodai Iida free-kick and turned the ball past Forge ‘keeper Tristan Henry for the first ever HFX Wanderers goal.
“I was just happy to make history for my club, for my country, for my team…” he trails off, lost in the moment.
First, the noise. As the ball is steered into the bottom corner the Wanderers Grounds transforms itself into a single, deafening roar. Goalscorer Akeem Garcia, meanwhile, is gone. First right, then left.
An ever-growing number of Wanderers players chase him down but Garcia is heading for the dugout in search of Derek King. It’s been quite the journey for these two. The young player whose career was stalled by injury and the coach who believed he could come back from it. Before he can reach him though, he’s ordered back towards the pitch. It is, after all, only the 28th minute.
Plumes of blue smoke colour the grey sky.
3,800 kilometers south, there is nothing but pride.
Those 90 minutes remain a high point for the club this season.
Wanderers finished 4th in the Spring standings and currently sit 7th in the Fall standings. There have been good days, notably those at the Wanderers Grounds, but there have been bad days, too. Such is the way with a brand new club in a brand new league.
On an individual level, there's an argument to be made for Akeem Garcia as Wanderers' Player of the Season. He tops the scoring charts, for a start - but there's more to it than that. His performances throughout have been consistently high, rarely dropping below a 7/10. He creates chances, constantly threatens with intelligent runs in behind, and continues to display an uncanny ability to shield and protect possession despite the physicality of the league's defenders. Garcia though, isn't satisfied.
“For me personally I think I should have done better. I should have definitely scored more goals. It’s a learning experience and next year, when I hopefully come back, together with the team we can work on getting better. I think we’ll be fine”
And so, as the season reaches its end and he readies himself to return home for the off-season, there’s a lot to reflect on.
“I don’t come from a first world country, and coming here… this is definitely a first world country” he says. “Yes, it took me awhile to get accustomed to the weather but it’s been such a great experience. The people in Canada are so nice”
His is just one side of a mutual affection that Wanderers fans will hope lasts for a few more years yet. Regardless of what happens in the future, one thing’s for sure: this job, this version of living, isn’t one that’s wasted on Akeem Garcia.
“This is what I want – this life. Getting up every morning, working hard, training, playing football. To enjoy your job…” he pauses. “It’s just a wonderful, wonderful feeling”.
Not bad for the boy from Arima.
Gary is an Arsenal supporting, Halifax-based Brit who moved to Canada in 2016 unaware that he was about to fall in love with another football team. He can be found on on Twitter in the following places: @FromAwaysHFX and @GaryG86 or on Instagram at fromawayshfx.