U.S. Abroad-Castillo: From New Mexico to Old Mexico

How a small-town U.S. boy ended up on the Mexican national team.

Even when Edgar Castillo was only 4 years old, he watched soccer games on television.

"He'd come over to our house to play with my boys," says Linda Lara. "If I turned on the television for a soccer game, Edgar would start watching. The other boys would go goof around outside or something, but Edgar would stay glued to the TV. He'd sit there, biting his nails, mesmerized by the game."

When he started playing for Lara's club, Strikers FC of Las Cruces, N.M., she noticed how different he was from the other youngsters who were playing their first organized ball.

"The little boys did the usual scrambling for the ball in a big bunch," says Lara. "Edgar would watch and watch and watch, then all of a sudden do something spectacular and score a goal."

Other 5-year-olds burst full speed ahead when they got on the ball, but Castillo would dribble calmly, tapping the ball just the right distance to the side to evade defenders.

"And he loved to get goals," says Lara. "Back then, we still used goalkeepers for the youngest age group. Even when he was only 5, Edgar knew how draw the goalkeeper in, fake him out, and shoot into the goal."

Castillo dazzled in games but amused his coaches in practice.

"It was really funny," said Lara. "He was horrible at drills. And he had an attention span of zero when someone was explaining something to him. But it was OK, because he didn't need to be taught. He played naturally."

With a brother one year younger, Noel, and another brother two years older, Juan Carlos, Edgar played soccer constantly at home.

"We used fruit baskets, rocks, the garage door - anything we could find - for goals," says Juan Carlos.

Inside the house, the boys crumpled up paper into a ball to play - and did their share of damage.

"They broke a lot of porcelain," says their father, Carlos. "My wife wasn't too happy about it. But it turned out to be worth it."

After Castillo graduated from Mayfield High School in Las Cruces, he and Noel attended Mexican First Division club Santos Laguna's open tryout for 300 young players. The brothers were among eight players offered long-term contracts.

Edgar debuted in the Mexican First Division in April 2006 at age 19. Last January he won the starting spot at left back.

Last August, while Carlos Castillo was busy laying bathroom tile he took a break from his job to answer his cell phone. On the other line was a friend from El Paso who said, "Congratulations! You're son made it."

"Made what?" Castillo asked.

The Mexican national team, came the answer.

Later that evening Carlos Castillo and his wife, Guadalupe, watched the Univision sports show Contacto Deportivo.

"They listed the roster and a picture of Edgar came on the screen," says Carlos. "We almost cried."

Coach Hugo Sanchez had included Castillo in his squad for a friendly in Denver against Colombia. With the Mexico down 1-0, Castillo entered the game in the 65th minute on the left side of midfield and nearly set up a goal.

Sanchez had used the game to test several young players for the Mexican U-23 team that will aim to qualify for the 2008 Olympic Games. Because it was a friendly, Castillo remains eligible for the USA.

TWO COUNTRIES. Carlos Castillo worked as a machinist in the Mexican state of Coahuila but knew he could earn significantly more money picking chili peppers in New Mexico. In 1983, at age 22, he immigrated to United States.

"I became a chili picker," he says. "I worked in the fields, picking jalapenos, red chili peppers, lettuce, onions. It was the easiest work to get. You made 30 or 40 bucks a day working in the hot sun. In Mexico, I got my diploma as a machinist, but I couldn't make that kind of money. I love green bills, not the peso. Mexico is beautiful, but it's poor."

Carlos Castillo eventually explored other work, such as construction. Now he specializes in remodeling homes and flooring.

"Tile, vinyl, wood, ceramic ... you name it," he says.

Carlos Castillo got a taste of the United States when he was a young boy. His family had moved to Southern California when he was 6 but moved back to Mexico when he was 10.

"I love the United States," says Carlos Castillo. "It's given me my living. We have a good life. Everything is great for us. But I am disappointed in U.S. soccer."

For however delighted Carlos Castillo was about his son playing for Mexico, the apathy toward his son by the U.S. national team program is hard for him to accept. He can't understand that his son could be picked for the Mexican national team but not impress the U.S. national team program.

U.S. coach Bob Bradley has within the last year invited players into training camps who have never played First Division ball, but neither Bradley nor any member of his coaching staff made contact with Castillo while he established himself as one of the top young players in the Mexican league.

Because Edgar has dual citizenship, he was eligible for Mexico's national team. And the fact that Sanchez courted him while his own country ignored him made the choice to represent the nation of his heritage an easy one.

"The other side never called," says Edgar Castillo, who was invited into another Mexico training camp in October and has a good shot at making the U-23 team. If he plays in Olympic qualifiers, he'll no longer be eligible for the USA.

"I am saddened that the United States has not recognized Edgar," says Lara, an elementary school teacher and family therapist for parents of disabled children, who paid for all of Castillo's trips to ODP tryouts. "When he was a kid, they always told us he was not big enough.

"But after all of his success in Mexico, one would have thought the U.S. national team program would finally give him a call. I realize that just because he's playing in the Mexican First Division doesn't guarantee him a spot on the U.S. national team, but it would have been nice if they had gotten in touch with him, to at least let him know they were aware of what he's done."

A QUIET LEADER. Castillo's role is one that the Mexicans call carrilero: a player who flies up and down the wing. The fact that he does this on the left side makes him all the more valuable.

When Santos extended its season-long winning streak to 11 games with a win against Pumas, it recalled an attribute that Lara recognized long ago.

"When something went wrong," she says, "Edgar would rise. If he got pushed or tripped, he'd respond with a goal."

Castillo played as a forward and attacking midfielder in his youth days. Santos put him at left back. Against Pumas, when Castillo gave up the ball deep in Santos territory, Pumas capitalized and equalized the game at 2-2. But with seven minutes left, Castillo stormed forward and set up the winning goal.

Off the field, Lara said Castillo, who was best buddies with her youngest son, Bingy, was as introverted as a child could be.

"He was so shy and quiet," she says. "He did whatever Bingy did. If you asked Edgar what he wanted for lunch, he said, 'What Bingy's having.' You'd give him a bunch of choices, and he'd say, 'What Bingy's having.'"

But on the field, Castillo took charge.

"He drove the team," said Lara. "If the team was losing, he was the one who got everyone else going and inspired them to come back."

When Castillo was invited to his second Mexico camp, Lara had just returned from taking her U-16 team to a tournament in Bakersfield, Calif., in hopes that they could get exposure to college coaches.

It was a typical trip for Lara. She paid most of the expenses herself. The entire team squeezed into two hotel rooms. For most of the boys, it was their first big trip.

"They spent the entire 14-hour drive staring out the window," she says. "When we got there, they stood for minutes and stared at the complex.

"We're a small town, far from all the areas where coaches scout players. So we keep trying to take them where they need to go so that they'll get looked at. Maybe Edgar's success will help the other players get discovered."

(This article originally appeared in the November 2007 issue of Soccer America magazine.)

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