The Fire's relationship with Monarcas Morelia began to develop on a hot summer evening at a downtown restaurant in Michoacan, Mexico, when, over dinner, Fire general manager Peter Wilt and then-Monarcas general manager Mario Ordiales coincidentally began to discuss the possibility of a partnership, setting into motion an ocean of ideas between the two club bosses. Fast forward. Twenty-four months later, the Chicago - Morelia connection is tighter than ever. The two clubs have exchanged everything from youth program and fan club ideas to front office best practices.
So when Ignacio Carrasco and Roberto Muñoz arrived in Dave Sarachan's camp for practice last week, the vibe was that of having two relatives visiting from abroad. For Carrasco, 22, the trip to Chicago marks his second in just over 30 days, as per the invitation of Sarachan, who asked that the gifted midfielder stay for an additional week this time around. Glowing and unassuming, the 21-year-old Muñoz, younger brother of Monarcas starting goalkeeper Moises, can't hide his enthusiasm as he and his teammate look out from the Fire's 19th-story offices and onto Oak Street Beach.
Chicago-Fire.com: Welcome to Chicago. Or in Ignacio's case, welcome back. What do you think of the city so far?
Ignacio Carrasco: I've only had positive thoughts about this city and about this team. So far, everyone's been great to me. I'm very happy to be back here.
Roberto Muñoz: Well, it's my first visit to Chicago, but I like it a lot. The team has given us a warm welcome and I've been looking forward to this trip for some time now. This team is everything I'd hoped it would be - very professional and full of talent.
CF: The last time you were here, you were wearing gloves, winter hats and scarves. Today I see you in shorts, a T-shirt and sandals. That's quite a change in wardrobe.
IC: [Laughing] Yes, and I'm not complaining!
CF: Did you know that the largest Mexican group in Chicago is comprised of people from Michoacan?
RM: Yes, that's what I've been told. I was born and bred in Michoacan, so it's very nice to come here and see so many people from your hometown.
CF: Now that you've trained with the team, what kind of adjustments have you had to make on the field, if any?
RM: There are some differences between Mexican and U.S. soccer. Here it's very fast-paced. But I tend to adapt quickly to a new environment, so it hasn't been too difficult for me to adjust. Soccer is soccer, and it doesn't matter where you are.
CF: What are your goals during your stay in Chicago?
RM: I would like to perform at my highest level in my limited time with the Fire. I would like to play for the Fire one day, because I think it's a great team. But that's not my decision. That decision needs to come from the coach and the general manager.
CF: Monarcas has traditionally enjoyed great success in Mexico. What happened last season?
IC: Well, we didn't make the playoffs and it was very disappointing because, as you mentioned, this team is very proud of its winning tradition. Sometimes it's bad luck. Other times it's lack of organization. Our division was also tight throughout the season. At the end of the day, things just didn't go our way.
CF: Did the abrupt change in head coaches affect the team's chemistry?
IC: I don't think the change in coaches was a huge factor, because the players are the ones that can make a difference. Yes, the new coach can bring some needed motivation, but in our case, time was not on our side.
CF: Your English is very good. Where did you learn to speak it?
RM: I lived in California for about five years when I was a kid. I have very fond memories of this country. I actually started playing soccer here in the U.S.
CF: Speaking of soccer in the U.S., what are your thoughts on the recent performances of the U.S. national team?
RM: It goes without saying - the U.S. national team is at its highest level right now. They have won most of the games against [Mexico] recently. Ten years ago, it was the other way around. It's pretty incredible. The U.S. has great players, great athletes. One of the reasons why the team has become so strong in such short amount of time is because of MLS. This league has done a wonderful job of discovering and developing young, talented players.
CF: Do you feel the U.S. is now a superior team?
IC: The U.S. national team and MLS have grown together, and the entire world has seen its tremendous progress. However, I personally don't feel inferior to anyone - whether it's the U.S. or not.
CF: One of the Fire's most important accomplishments has been the launching of its youth development program. With so many Americans now playing soccer, this area is clearly taking precedence at the Fire. What kind of emphasis is placed in Morelia's youth development program and what does the Fire need to do to keep nurturing the program?
RM: In Morelia, we've had this program for such a long time now. It's an unbelievable program that helps us recruit some of the most talented kids in the country. If selected and given the opportunity, the kids climb through a very established youth program ladder. They are coached by some very experienced people, and the goal is of course to one day play for the full team - the team they've looked up to all along.
IC: What's key is to keep motivating the younger player, no matter how old the player may be. In Morelia, sometimes the older player gets more opportunities, for whatever reason. But many times it's the younger player who can bring more to the table, and a lot of times they're just shut down. It's vital to keep motivating the younger player. They need to feel like they're going to be given a chance to move up.
CF: The Fire and Monarcas have both benefited from each other's experiences, mainly because of the opportunities for both clubs to exchange ideas in various areas. How is the partnership between the Fire and Monarcas perceived in Mexico?
IC: It's been talked about a lot in the media and we think it's quite innovative. I'm ecstatic because I've been given the opportunity to come in and train with the Fire and because I'm one of the first players to be selected to train here, I want to leave a very good impression.
RM: There's something so relaxing and special about being here and spending time with the team and front office. The partnership has brought so many good things and I feel blessed to be here. I am thankful for this opportunity and hope that both clubs can continue to learn from each other.