Chicago's El Tri fans relishing Castillo-Márquez tilt

Area's Mexican population ready to see Castillo fulfill potential

CHICAGO – Like so many streets in the US during a recession,
the main artery of Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood has seen better times.

The stretch of 18th Ave. that carves through the
heart of the city’s biggest Mexican enclave is dotted with the traditional signs
for a sour economy and tough times: boarded windows, foreclosure notices and
harmless “We Call Police” signs protecting vacant storefronts with nothing to
steal.

But at Ochoa Soccer Specialists—a steady Pilsen
institution for 45 years hearty enough for economic downturns of the past and the
creeping gentrification threatening now—business is swift. Macloveo
Jackson-Smith greeted customers regularly from his post at Ochoa on Saturday, reclined
in a chair with arms folded, the walls behind him littered with soccer
treasures spanning four decades.

“I wish I would have known you were coming, I would have
given you the proper tour,” Jackson-Smith says, lifting up his head. “The
Mexican national team was here last time they were in town, they picked up some
goalkeeper gloves right there on the counter. We’ve got players coming in here
all the time.”

Soccer—especially in Pilsen, evidently—is
recession-proof. And the news here is better than usual, thanks to the arrival
of Nery Castillo, the Mexican star signed last month as the Chicago Fire’s new
Designated Player.

The talk at Ochoa and on the streets of Pilsen ahead of
Castillo’s Sunday debut against the New York Red Bulls at Toyota Park is
mixed. It seems that Castillo—who starred so brilliantly for
the Mexican national team during the 2007 Copa America tournament in Venezuela
but has yet to leverage that success into something more resplendent with
Mexican fans—can be a galvanizing force for the Hispanic base here, but most are
curious to see if Castillo can somehow rediscover the magic that made him a national hero—both in Mexico and here in the States.

“Before his coming here, I think a lot of people were
worried the Fire weren’t going to do anything to get Mexican fans after
Cuauhtemoc Blanco left, but the hopes are high now,” Jackson-Smith said. “I
think for people who know soccer, they realize Castillo’s really up there. He
just has to prove it here.”

Castillo’s professional career includes an impressive stint
with Olympiakos and the jaw-dropping $27 million contract with Ukrainian side Shaktar Donetsk that followed,
but that means surprisingly little to Mexican fans. The mark of a Mexican
player is inevitably made by what he does for El Tri, and Castillo has done
little since his 2007 breakthrough.

“He’s a known commodity, but he never did much for us,” says
Carlos Velasquez, who recently moved to Pilsen from San Jose. “He’s a nice
replacement after losing Blanco, and the Fire needed a Mexican player. But I
don’t know if Nery Castillo alone will make me go to any Fire games.”

It’s clear by Ochoa’s walls that Castillo hasn’t made his
mark just yet. The store offers up jerseys for the most popular Mexican club
teams and a string of different Mexican national team kits, and the walls are
lined with El Tri team photos from World Cups dating back to the 1980s. The Castillo Fire jerseys?

“Maybe next week,” Jackson-Smith says.

Luckily, Castillo doesn’t have to carry Sunday’s sold-out bill
in Bridgeview alone. The Fire-Red Bulls match also marks the long-awaited debut
of Rafael Márquez,
the Red Bulls’ star acquisition who just last month captained the Mexican
national team in the World Cup in South Africa.

Unlike Castillo, Márquez has delivered repeatedly for
club and country. After three World Cups for El Tri, Márquez is perhaps as well-known
and certainly as well-respected as Blanco, who never enjoyed a fraction of the
European success Márquez did with French side Monaco or with multiple UEFA
Champions League winner Barcelona.

But for Enrique Saldovar, who scooped up a group of tickets
for the Sunday’s Fire match from Jackson-Smith on Saturday, Márquez
still never quite satisfied all the wishes of Mexican fans.

“So he won at Barcelona—that’s great. But they win
everything,” Saldovar said. “But what about us? For us, it’s always going to be
more important to do well for the Mexican national team than how you do in
Europe.”

That’s no surprise. Success with a player’s national team
trumps club titles throughout the world, and the UEFA trophies won by players
like Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney or Lionel Messi mean little in comparison
to the collective grumbling every time Portugal, England or Argentina exit
early at the World Cup.

Still, the buzz is certainly building in Chicago, a place
where Mexicans flocked to see Blanco year after year and proved that a prized
Mexican player can not only succeed in MLS but also change the dynamic of a
team’s fan base.

And on Sunday, soccer fans in Pilsen will once again have
reason to celebrate, honoring prized Mexican players now suiting up in MLS in
front of a crowd who, even in lean times, wouldn’t miss the chance to see their
heroes play.

“Of course we’re going,” Saldovar said. “Everyone’s going to
this."