BRENT LATHAM - Thursday, September 10, 2009
It's a straightforward enough trip from Las Cruces to Torreon. You drive south on I-25 to the border at El Paso, then it's just one road straight down, through Chihuahua, to the city where Santos, one of Mexico's most successful soccer clubs in recent years, is based.
When Edgar Castillo made that trip for the first time as lanky, wide-eyed teenager, the Mexican-American had little idea what the next five years would bring.
Castillo has since established himself as one of the more promising and gifted defensive players in the American player pool. But that, as everyone associated with American or Mexican soccer knows by now, is not where the story begins.
To tell the story of Edgar Castillo, you have to start on the dusty fields of Las Cruces, New Mexico, where as a young player, urged on by his local coaches, who helped him overcome a scarcity of resources, Castillo fought his way into the top level regional youth programs.
"In ODP, I was in the regional team at Cal-South, with players from Mexico, Nevada, Utah," Castillo recalled when he sat down with YA before a recent match with his newest Mexican club team, Tigres.
Even then, Castillo showed enough promise to be considered among the elite of American soccer at his level.
"When I was 14, I went to the national team camp with Freddy Adu and Michael Orozco," he remembers.
This past summer, Castillo was lent to Tigres for one season by his current club, America, where he struggled last season after making a much-touted move from Santos. Reunited at Tigres with Coach Daniel Guzman, who brought Castillo through the youth ranks at Santos, the Las Cruces native has begun to reestablish himself as one of the most offensively potent left backs in the Mexican game.
But to get to this point as a professional, Castillo says, he first had to escape the anonymity of the American youth system.
"In the US, in California, everywhere, it's hard to evaluate talent because there are so many good players," said Castillo, who explained that much of the opportunity he did get was due to his ODP coach, who believed in him despite his size, and subsidized his participation in the traveling team.
"I was in ODP and the regional team," Castillo said, "but there are a lot of good players that go through the system and can't pay, even players much better than I am, who can't ever prove themselves."
As he got older, his success led to dreams of a career as a professional soccer player. But knowing his grades weren't good enough to follow the traditional American route to college, Castillo saw his opportunities beginning to dry up.
That's when the chance to head south emerged. With one semester remaining in high school, Castillo headed to Torreon with his brother Noel, to participate in a tryout for the Santos youth system. Of over 100 players, Santos chose eight to join their youth ranks. Among them were Edgar and Noel, currently of Mexican second division team Irapuato.
"The rest is known," Castillo says of his time at Santos. "Three seasons, I was the starter, and with Daniel we were champions."
Following that success in the 2008 Clausura, Castillo made the leap to Club America. But the scouts at Mexico's flashiest club weren't the only ones watching Castillo's progress at Santos. Then-Mexican national team coach and El Tri legend Hugo Sanchez spotted Castillo as well, and decided to call him in to the national team in the summer of 2007.
American national team coach Bob Bradley got word of the call-up, and sought Castillo out himself, trying to convince the dual national to wait for the United States. But Castillo had already been won over by the environment that surrounded him in Mexico. He famously told Bradley that he would never play for the United States.
"When I got to Mexico they treated me very well, and Hugo Sanchez gave me the chance to play," Castillo said. "I took it."
Castillo frames his initial national team decision in the passion for the game ubiquitous in Mexico. Playing for the Mexican national team, as a professional in the Mexican league, seemed like a natural fit for the young winger. He had never known professional soccer anywhere else.
"Here the culture of soccer is so much deeper," Castillo said, making the obvious comparison to the still grassroots support for the sport in the US. "There's so much more passion."
Despite his fleeting allegiance to Mexico, Castillo sees himself and other young players as part of a groundswell in the development of soccer in his home country. He says one of his personal goals is to be part of the growth of the sport in the United States, and perhaps to return at some point to play professionally in MLS.
"I'd like to return to the league one day when it's different, we're talking about years from now," Castillo said of the day American fans show some of the passion that Mexicans display for their teams. "For now I have other plans. There's been a lot of talk about moving to Europe. There have been discussions, but nothing firm has come of it."
Castillo says he could see himself bringing an element of style and speed to the wing of just about any club in the world, but he has a particular preference when it comes to moving across the Atlantic.
"I'd love to play in England," the man known to his teammates as "El Homie," for the gangster-like tattoos covering his forearms, said. "My representative told me there have been discussions and interest, but nothing firm. I'm only 22 and there's plenty of time to think about that."
While he is thinking of crossing the Atlantic, Castillo also has his sights set on another trip, this one to South Africa in 2010. His high-profile attempts to switch national allegiance to the United States, much documented, have just received FIFA's stamp of approval, and Castillo is now eligible to be called at any time.
Castillo's participation with the Mexican national team ended abruptly after he reportedly lost his passport after then-coach Sven-Goran Eriksson called him for matches earlier this year against Costa Rica and Honduras. Following those matches, with the firing of Eriksson meaning that Castillo would have to play under a third different national team coach in two years, the erstwhile American had seen enough. He declared his intention to switch his soccer allegiance to the US.
"My goal right now is to get to the national team and get to the World Cup," Castillo said of his attempts to newly impress Bob Bradley, and get a shot at making the World Cup roster. If Castillo can continue his good play at Tigres, that goal may become a reality next summer.
If he does make it to South Africa, the road will have been a complicated, long, and winding one. Nothing like that trip south from Las Cruces.