Once he had one, he knew he could score more. Three more? Well, even “Taty” himself might not have been ready for that.
Valentin Castellanos had Spanish reporters blowing dust from the pages of their record books late last month, until they eventually thumbed through and found he was the first player since 1947 to put four goals past Real Madrid.
“I knew I wasn’t going to have many chances to score, obviously, against a really tough defense and luckily when the first ball came to me and I was able to score, it was a huge joy and gave me confidence to keep scoring to be able to try and help the team,” he told MLSsoccer.com this week in Spanish.
The Girona forward, on loan in LaLiga since July 2022 after more than four seasons with New York City FC, didn’t stop with the four goals in a 4-2 win over Los Blancos. Castellanos has scored in each of his last four matches, pushing Girona into seventh place and the 2023-24 UEFA Conference League spot that comes with it at year’s end.
“Obviously what Real Madrid generates, one of the biggest teams, with the biggest audiences, it’s going to get talked about everywhere,” he said. “That helps you get motivated to keep growing and stay focused, getting that push to close well in the league and finish the season as well as possible.”
While it’s clear the Mendoza, Argentina native is going to finish the year on a high, the striker’s start to the season was less dazzling. After his first LaLiga goal in late August, it took another two months for him to score again, and he entered the late-autumn World Cup break with just a trio of goals.
Yet, the player he was in 2021, winning MLS’ Golden Boot presented by Audi with 19 goals in 32 matches and helping NYCFC to their first-ever MLS Cup title, was very much still inside.
“I knew it would be tough,” said Castellanos, who's joined at Girona by former NYCFC defender Alexander Callens. “When I got here, first of all to a new team, first time in Europe playing against teams that are really prepared, that fight, that work and have the goal to not go down or to get into the European places, or against guys with a lot of individual goals.”
Castellanos too set a number of individual goals, chief among them being able to adapt to the different styles of team defense and individual defenders he’d face in Spain.
One of the biggest things he learned is the need for a killer instinct. While he recalled matches in MLS when he had five or six scoring chances, he noted “here it’s one or two. You’ve got to finish those to be able to do your best as a 9.”
NYCFC: Home away from home
Fans in MLS grew accustomed to seeing Castellanos converting many of the opportunities he had, resulting in him leaving the league. But for Castellanos, NYCFC is more than just a place where he scored boatloads of goals and won a trophy. It’s a second home.
Even as a youth player, Castellanos had to leave home, going from western Argentina to Chile, then to Uruguay’s Montevideo City Torque to start his career. After a loan stint in 2018, he found consistency at NYCFC from 2019 until departing for this season’s loan that’s kept him within City Football Group.
“New York for me was the place I was away from home for the longest,” he said. “I was there four and a half years, played almost five seasons there, and obviously I made a lot of friends at the club, even today.
“It’s a marvelous city where I experienced a lot of beautiful things and some bad ones too, but things that stay with you as an experience. The fans really loved me and I felt their support. I still feel support from fans in New York, checking in on me, supporting me and those are the types of things that motivate you.”
Among the areas he still reminisces about are fans at Yankee Stadium cheering his name and kids in the crowd imitating his goal celebrations as he put them into action on the field. He also remembers the friendships and the on-field lessons he was taught by veterans like Maxi Moralez.
Taty’s day-to-day life looks different now, getting recognized far more often on the streets of Girona (population 100,000) instead of New York (population 8.4 million), with Castellanos saying Girona is “more of a town” than a big city, though it’s easy to pop over to nearby Barcelona if he needs anything from an urban metropolis.
Even with all the nostalgia of his long stint at NYCFC and the good memories of being in one of the world’s biggest cities, Castellanos is enjoying his current experience. On loan through the end of the 2022-23 season, it’s not clear what the next step will be, but the 24-year-old wants to keep challenging himself in what he called the second-best league in the world.
“Right now, I’m enjoying things in Europe. I like it and it was something I wanted to do, come here and see how I felt. I’m comfortable here,” he said. “The Girona fans really have shown me a lot of love and that also gives you more hope to stay, the desire to stay in Europe. That’s my idea, honestly. I think I completed a cycle in MLS and would like to keep proving myself in another type of football to keep growing personally.
“I’m still here, still a New York City player. Right now it’s a question of what will happen in the future. There are still six league matches left in the season so after we’ll see, but I’m really happy here.”
Whatever the future holds, be it an extended Girona stay or another transfer, Castellanos remains thankful for the lessons he learned, the ways his toolbox expanded, and the memories he made lifting MLS Cup 2021 with NYCFC.
“Those are the things that fill you up with experience and helped me to today be able to be here in Girona, bringing over these positive things to a European club and developing on the field,” he said.