Nery Castillo is expected to make his Chicago Fire debut on Sunday.
Chicago Fire

Chicago's El Tri fans relishing Castillo-Márquez tilt

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.

[inline_node:315011]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."