July 23, 2008

With explosive speed, a powerful left foot and a penchant for slicing through opposing defenses, Edgar Castillo has established himself as one of the top young American soccer players.

At 21, he is already a premier player for Santos Laguna, the reigning Mexican league champion, just as he was as a high school phenomenon in Las Cruces, N.M., where he was born and raised.
But despite his talents and his development as a player in the United States, Castillo will never play for the national team. He holds dual American and Mexican citizenship, and after being wooed by Mexico’s former coach, Hugo Sánchez, Castillo decided earlier this year to represent Mexico in international competition. FIFA rules prohibit a player from changing countries after turning 21.

Even more frustrating for United States soccer officials, Castillo said he would have liked to have played for the United States but never attracted much interest until Mexico reached out to him first.
“It would have been nice — to be from the U.S. and play for the U.S.,” Castillo said in an interview last week when he was in the Los Angeles area with Santos for the SuperLiga tournament. “I was wondering what the U.S. was thinking, why they were not calling me.”

The case of Castillo, who has played for Mexico’s national team and the country’s under-23 team, exemplifies a situation that United States officials want to avoid.

“There is a sense that we can’t let this happen again,” said Hugo Salcedo, a member of the 1972 United States Olympic soccer team, who has worked with FIFA and advises Hispanic soccer players in the United States on their careers. “Now we have more American scouts looking at the Hispanic community and trying to bring players into our national camps.”

Sunil Gulati, the president of the United States Soccer Federation, said Castillo was more of an exception than part of a pattern. He cited defender Michael Orozco, who was born to Mexican parents and raised in Orange County, Calif., and plays for San Luis in Mexico and is on the United States Olympic team for the Beijing Games.

Since being elected to his post in 2006, Gulati has stressed reaching out to players in immigrant and urban communities and reducing the cost of playing competitive youth soccer.

The recent creation of the United States Soccer Development Academy, a league of 62 top youth club teams, is one strategy. The Los Angeles Fútbol Club, a primarily Hispanic team that Gulati said officials previously did not know much about, has been one of the academy’s surprise success stories.

He also pointed to the hiring of Wilmer Cabrera, a native of Colombia, as coach of the United States under-17 men’s team.

Bob Bradley, the coach of the United States national team, tried to persuade Castillo to consider playing for the United States after Mexico made its move. He said he viewed this situation as a function of Castillo’s rapid development.

Coaches were familiar with Castillo as a young player in New Mexico, Bradley said, but he had not truly caught their eye until after he debuted for Santos in 2006. By then, it was too late.

“When he had just begun to play for Santos regularly, Mexico brought him in for a friendly,” Bradley said. “That makes the process more challenging. There’s more tension to the whole thing, and the time line of trying to watch a guy for a little bit and find the right time is more difficult.”

Bradley attended the Santos-Chivas USA game last week, which Chivas won, 1-0. Castillo was one of the most dangerous players on the field, creating some of Santos’s best scoring chances with swift probing runs from the left side.

“We want to always do everything possible to be on top of the talented players that could play for the United States and try to bring them into our teams at the right time,” Bradley said. “When we miss out on somebody, it is frustrating for sure.”

For those who knew Castillo in Las Cruces, his situation is equally frustrating.

“He would take over every game and just dribble through entire defenses and score,” said Art Garibay, his coach at Mayfield High School, where Castillo led the state in scoring three years in a row and was named New Mexico’s N.S.C.A.A./Adidas high school player of the year as a sophomore.
Castillo played for one of the best club teams in the Southwest, Striker F.C.; was selected to the regional Olympic development team; and attended a national camp in Boston when he was 14. He also received attention from college coaches.

But eventually, Castillo’s Mexican-born father, Carlos, who lays tile for a living in Las Cruces, told Garibay that he had given up on the United States soccer program. He had decided to allow his 18-year-old son to go to Mexico for an open tryout at Santos.

“Edgar was extremely upset,” Garibay said. “The look on his face — with all that skill, all this magic and to not get a chance to play.”

Garibay said he thought Castillo’s thin 5-foot-8 frame might have been one factor. Castillo agreed that his size had hurt him. He said United States coaches were generally too easily impressed with the build of young players.

“It is more about being bigger and stronger,” he said. “And I’m a little guy.”

Castillo has flourished as a starting left back and midfielder for Santos; his teammates jokingly call him Gringo.

It is too late for Castillo to join the United States team, but officials are at least aware of his younger brother Noel, 20. He is a rising player for Indios, just promoted to the Mexican First Division.
Edgar Castillo said the decision to play for Mexico was difficult. But he said he felt pulled toward the country that had given him the best opportunity and had pursued him first. So far, he has appeared twice for the Mexican national team and has started for its under-23 team, scoring a goal in a 2-1 loss against Guatemala in March during Mexico’s failed attempt to qualify for the Olympics.

“There are going to be people who are going to hate you because you didn’t come play in the U.S.,” Castillo said. “But what can you say? Now I’m in Mexico.”

23 / July / 2008  In the News 


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