BRIDGEVIEW Ill. – In the summer of 2007, Nery Castillo was one of the hottest young names in international soccer.
The Mexican forward/midfielder had just completed his seventh season with Greek giants Olympiakos, and was tearing up the international circuit. He impressed observers at the CONCACAF Gold Cup with both his speed and dribbling skills, and he followed with four goals in a scorching Copa América performance against the best South America had to offer.
Few would have predicted that Castillo would end up a member of the Chicago Fire a mere three years after he wowed the world. But there was Castillo at Toyota Park on Thursday, introduced as the Fire’s new Designated Player after a lengthy courtship that left both sides eager for the future.
“I had the opportunity to be loaned, and their interest seemed to be the same as mine,” Castillo said through a translator on Wednesday. “They believe in me.”
Fire technical director Frank Klopas echoed those sentiments Thursday, adding that the signing brings the Fire a dynamic playmaker who the club first contacted more than two years ago while he was on loan with Manchester City.
“Getting to this day has been a long journey for the Chicago Fire,” Klopas said. “I can remember over two-and-a-half years ago… when we in the UK, looking for potential DPs. Obviously we all knew Nery … and we were actually thinking that one day potentially this guy could be a great addition to the Fire organization.”
Castillo follows in the DP footsteps of Cuauhtémoc Blanco, who became the club’s first Designated Player in 2007. In fact, Castillo will wear No. 10, the same number worn by Blanco during his more than two seasons with the club.
Castillo said he spoke with Blanco about the city and team prior to making the move and that he doesn’t expect to have any problems adapting to the culture or the league.
“[Blanco] said that it was a nice place to play,” Castillo said. “He was really happy with the organization over here in MLS and said that it was a beautiful city. Cuauh mentioned also that he had a good time when he was over here and that it was a great memory for him.”
Despite Castillo’s success, Fire head coach Carlos de los Cobos warned that the club’s new signing won’t serve as the team’s lone salvation to an at-times frustrating season.
“We’ve made it clear that Nery’s not here to save the team, he’s here to add to the team,” de los Cobos said. “He will be an important part of the team and I’m sure he’s 100 percent committed to helping the team. One player can’t change the face of the team or change the dynamic of the team, so we have to continue working.”
Castillo’s journey to Chicago began when he left Olympiakos to sign a 20 million euro contract with Ukraine’s Shakhtar Donetsk shortly after his solid performance in the Copa América. The transfer turned out to be ill-fated, as Castillo fell out of favor when – in one of his first matches with the club – he refused to give the ball to regular penalty kick taker Cristiano Lucarelli after the team was awarded a spot kick.
Instead, Castillo took the shot himself, subsequently missed and was immediately subbed off the field.
A few months after the penalty kick incident, Castillo was loaned out to Manchester City. A shoulder injury hampered him in England and he returned to Shakhtar a year later, only to be shipped off for an unsuccessful year-long loan to Ukraine’s Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in July 2009.
Castillo said Wednesday he had a hard time adjusting to life in Ukraine.
“Because of personal matters and adaptation things, I think that it didn’t work out,” he said. “I felt that I made a mistake because I didn’t know what was out there in Ukraine. When I got there I got surprised and the adaptation to that country was really, really sad because I wasn’t adjusting to that country’s lifestyle.”
Castillo has an opportunity to kick start his ailing career in Chicago. But he isn’t focused on himself. Rather, the 26-year-old is looking to do what his friend Blanco couldn’t: win a MLS Cup.
“I come over here with a lot of objectives,” Castillo said. “I know Cuauh was here in the past and I’ll be trying to [recreate his individual success] but I want to get a championship with the team. I want to show my qualities as much as I can so we can get things that the club deserves to get.”
Castillo, who began training with the Fire on Wednesday, will likely make his debut on Aug. 8, when the Fire play host to the New York Red Bulls.
Sam Stejskal covers the Chicago Fire for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ samstejskal.