24 Under 24: Fabian Castillo dreaming sweet dreams with FC Dallas and Colombia national team

Usually breakfast doesn’t come with dessert. However, one particular mid-summer morning turned out to be among the sweetest in Fabián Castillo’s life.

He woke up, greeted his wife, caressed his nine-month daughter and, as any other day, had breakfast at his home in the Dallas suburbs. 

The sudden ring of the telephone interrupted his customary routine.

- “Hello, is this Fabián?” requested a hoarse, and somewhat familiar voice, on the other side of the receiver.

- “Who is it?” countered an intrigued Castillo.

- “It’s José Néstor Pékerman,” the voice on the phone answered back with certainty.

The following milliseconds worked in Castillo’s favor, as he found a breath again while staring at his telephone trying to find an explanation.

“I was cold and confused. Was he serious?” Castillo recalls now. “It was totally unexpected and I think that if I hadn’t had breakfast, I would have fainted.”

The conversation was as fluent as Castillo’s anxiety, and Pékerman explained to the young winger about the opportunity he wanted to give him with the Colombian national team. Castillo was going to be called up for the first time to the senior squad, for a friendly against Peru at Red Bull Arena.

“He asked me what I thought, and I obviously said yes, that I wanted to be part of this amazing group of players he’s built,” said Castillo a few days later. “It was a lovely moment for me, because the coach himself called me. I didn’t find out through a press conference, or the Internet.

“The coach himself called me!”

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Fabian Castillo first turned heads at the pro level with Deportivo Cali, attracting attention from Benfica in the Portuguese Primera, and Brescia and Udinese in Serie A before signing with FC Dallas ahead of the 2011 season.

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“Castillo!” yelled the coach from the sideline, following a movement of his right arm inviting the player to join him. Training was over for the day, noon was approaching and the coach asked his pupil to stay a bit longer and have lunch, while most of his teammates went home.

“I used to tell [Fabián] Castillo to stay after training and have lunch with the big guys, who had the option to use the club’s dining room with all the employees, unlike the academy kids,” Jorge Luis Bernal recounts. “We used to collect money to help him out and buy him lunch, so that he wouldn’t have to go home which was about two hours away from Cali.”

Bernal took over as Deportivo Cali head coach in December 2009 and weeks later acknowledged Luis Muriel and Castillo as the attacking duo for the team in 2010. Castillo had just participated in the U-17 World Cup in Nigeria, where Colombia claimed fourth place, and both forwards had strengthened their spots during preseason.

“Profe Bernal told me from the beginning to do what I knew to do, to take advantage of my speed,” Castillo explains now. “Fortunately, it all worked out from the beginning. They gave me a lot of trust, both players and coaching staff.”

Castillo debuted with the first team during the first half of 2010, but he rose to recognition later in the year, scoring three goals on the Torneo Finalización. Media and the soccer community listed him as a player to watch.

“Since I met him, he showed tremendous abilities similar to the late Elson Becerra and Darwin Quintero,” says Bernal, today head coach of Jaguares de Córdoba, comparing Castillo to a pair of Colombian wingers. “His dribble, speed, and understanding of the game were impressive for a player his age.”

Along with his involvement with Colombia's youth national teams, Castillo started to attract attention from European clubs like Benfica in Portugal, where countrymen Radamel Falcao, James Rodríguez and Freddy Guarín were standing out with Porto. Recently promoted Brescia and Udinese in Serie A also were keen on signing Castillo, although it was Muriel who ended up being transferred to the Zebrette.

Castillo played alongside Colombia and Real Madrid playmaker James Rodriguez at the 2011 U-20 FIFA World Cup. (Getty Images)

Then came Oscar Pareja, who helped Cali to a title in 1996 as a player before heading to MLS first to play, and then to work in the front office for FC Dallas.

Pareja immediately saw in Castillo the appropriate fit for FCD.

“The first thing we saw is that he was part of the youth national teams in Colombia,” Pareja says today, five years after first scouting Castillo. “That he was a winger with a lot of speed, and we thought we could improve his game with technical development.”

Pareja and FC Dallas landed the young winger in March 2011, paying Deportivo Cali a transfer fee that reportedly approached seven figures to bring the then-18-year-old to the States.

His prospects with the national teams didn’t fade with his transfer to MLS. A few months after debuting with FC Dallas, Castillo was named to the U-20 Colombian national team that hosted the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2011.

Castillo played two games, a 2-0 win over Mali on the group stage and the 3-1 quarterfinal loss to Mexico.

“It meant a lot to me to be part of that group,” Castillo said. “Now most of them are playing in Europe, we were a great team and were favorites to win the Cup. We won our three group matches, were all focused but ended up falling short.”

That U-20 team comprised a new golden generation of Colombian soccer. Rodríguez, Muriel, Pedro Franco and Santiago Arias – all now part of the senior squad – merged with Falcao, Teófilo Gutiérrez, Juan Guillermo Cuadrado, Pablo Armero and Abel Aguilar, among others, to lead Colombia to their first FIFA World Cup in 16 years last summer in Brazil.

Today, thanks to what he’s done with FC Dallas, Castillo is back for a new cycle, one that’s aimed squarely at a trip to Russia in 2018.

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Castillo shows off his game-worn Colombia shirt from his first national team cap, alongside veteran FC Dallas and Panama striker Blas Perez. (Photo courtesy of Blas Perez)

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“Substitution for Colombia,” crowed the stadium PA announcer. “Entering the game, number 23, Fabián Castillo. Replacing number 10, James Rodríguez.”

He played 31 minutes and had two impressive runs into the box, registered two shots on goal and combined well with his teammates. It was the first time an MLS player debuted internationally for Colombia under José Pékerman.

“We’ve followed Fabián a lot in MLS, because we follow all Colombian players and there are a lot there with a good level. He’s been growing season after season,” Pékerman said when he announced the roster for the friendly against Peru. “He’s always shown very good condition, is a fast player, a winger who can play on both sides of the field and despite being right-footed manages both feet with a lot of creativity.”

It’s easy to conclude Castillo’s best attribute is his speed. It just so happens that all his coaches highlight this quality of him.

“Castillo has the ability to break apart defensive systems, but he’s also a source of attacking plays for his teammates, that can free up players like Falcao or Teo allowing them to concentrate only on scoring goals,” offers Bernal.

“Fabián is very, very, very, very destabilizing,” Pareja explains. “The national team will have a tool there, because he’s a different player. He’s not a No. 9, but a winger with a lot of speed and I believe Colombia doesn’t have that kind of player now.”

For Castillo, the scope widens as part of the national team, but he understands it is only up to him to continue being called up for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers. The spotlight up to this point has been sporadic, and he is determined to make sure it becomes an ever-present glow, and that he will grab his opportunity with both hands.

His international success must be born domestically. If he is to succeed with his country, he must first succeed with his club.

“The most important thing is to keep doing things right with Dallas and giving back to the club, if I want to continue representing my country,” says Castillo. “It’s been five seasons now with this one, and I don’t think I’ve achieved anything yet. After all this time and everything this club has done for me, it’s only fair to give them back that trust they’ve put on me and win something.

“The goal this year, with the rest of the guys, is to lift a trophy.”

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FC Dallas head coach Oscar Pareja was instrumental in bringing Castillo to MLS, and even more instrumental in helping him settle into his new culture. "I offered him my home and my family so he could feel as if he was back in Colombia." (USA Today Sports)

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It felt like a very different morning. The dry air and the heat, although similar to Cali’s, didn’t bring along humidity but an intense, searing sun.

A few hours before, he had gotten off a plane from Colombia, and now it was time to meet his new teammates. He approached a group of men wearing red and blue, recognized a few faces, but muted himself as it was only fitting to speak English in the US, he thought – a language he didn’t know.

But, one of those recognizable faces came close. It was a small and slightly older man who extended his arms and welcomed him – in Spanish – with a distinctive accent from the northern coast of Colombia.

Castillo immediately expressed his gratitude and his admiration for his new teammate, David Ferreira.

“We had a very good relationship with David from the get go. He always helped me out and was there with me, advising me about how to do this or that”, says Castillo, looking back on his first days in MLS. “With the rest of the team it took time but they started to understand that I wasn’t a veteran like them and had patience with me. I owe all of them [for making me] who I am today.”

Twenty days had passed since his arrival in Dallas before Castillo debuted with the team against San Jose the second week of the 2011 season. He scored his first goal in week seven against LA Galaxy, and he was named to the Team of the Week for week nine.

More than an optimal adaptation, right? Even more so when looking at a FC Dallas team that had a fairly locked-in lineup after reaching the MLS Cup final the year before.

The one responsible for Castillo's early success was Pareja, who was then FCD Academy Director and an assistant to head coach Schellas Hyndman. Just like Castillo, Pareja transferred to MLS from Deportivo Cali back in 1998, and experienced first-hand the difficulties of moving to a new culture while playing for the New England Revolution in 1998.

“In New England all the players were American, a few were Dutch, and there was only one Latino, Raúl Díaz Arce. It was really hard for me and the experience was not pleasing”, Pareja told FutbolMLS.com in 2013. El Papi, as players and friends know him, even bought a plane ticket back to Colombia with no return flight.

“I didn’t want to be here anymore, because there were so many barriers against me that were growing further”, he said.

But then Dallas came knocking – Dallas Burn at the time – and Pareja is certain about something: “That’s when my true MLS career started.”

Coming together with Castillo, who at the age of 18 had left his family, friends and everything he knew behind, Pareja welcomed the young Colombian into his own home. Today, Castillo is another member of the Pareja family, to the extent that the coach’s mother considers him one of her grandchildren.

“We made that decision because we wanted Fabián to adapt quickly and, we knew beforehand, Fabián was a player and a person who needed that kind of family-oriented structure,” Pareja says today. “I felt very close to him, also because I was the one who looked for him, and felt I had the responsibility for the project to succeed.

Castillo has come into his own over the last two years, playing the best soccer of his life as he grows in maturity both on and off the field. (USA Today Sports)

“I offered him my home and my family so he could feel as if he was back in Colombia. So he could eat well, have discipline and facilitate the adaptation to this culture.”

That structure helped Castillo, both on the personal and professional levels.

In the past year Castillo wed the love of his life, and the couple have welcomed a daughter, María Salomé. His life has turned 180 degrees from his arrival five years ago, and now he has his own home, comfort and family. 

“When you have such a big responsibility you learn how to grow faster and live differently”, says Castillo. “You are no longer that single kid who could do anything you wanted and go out. Everything has changed in my life so positively with the arrival of my wife and daughter.”

That stability and maturity seems to have paid dividends on the field as well. His scoring contributions have skyrocketed the last two years, but at the same time he’s learned to connect more with the team, to release the ball more often and attack in concert with his teammates. His speed is now an asset on more than just an individual level – it’s a weapon he selectively deploys to the benefit of the entire Dallas attack.

There is harmony and growth at home, and harmony on the field. And it’s correct to draw a connection between that and Pareja’s return to Dallas as head coach last year, after two seasons in Colorado.

“He understands this is a league that makes him better, that he’s got a high mark to reach and it’s that high because the league has taken him there,” Pareja says. “The commitment he has is important. We back him up by not disappointing him, by demanding more of him and providing him with whatever he needs, while showing him there’s still an even higher point to reach.”

For Castillo, it’s clear that the sweetest days are yet to come.

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