Ever since he arrived in Union City 10 years ago, as a wide-eyed 8-year-old, Santiago Castano always dreamed of playing professional soccer.
From his days as a student, first at Washington School, then Jose Marti Middle School and finally Union City High School, Castano, a standout goalkeeper, had his eye on the dream – one that began when he was just 12 years old and selected to play with the prestigious New York Red Bulls Academy.
“I was 12 and playing U-14 [under the age of 14],” Castano said. “Right after that, I was picked to play for the U.S. National Team. I was always training and traveling back then. I kept moving my way up slowly.”
Castano thought that one day he would be able to play for Union City High School, but because of his commitments to the Red Bulls Academy, he was unable to become a member of the Soaring Eagles soccer squad.
“Everyone at the high school, including the coaches, wanted me to play, but the high school season was too close to the Academy season,” Castano explained. “I wanted to, but it would have been kind of tough. I’m still friends with a lot of the guys on the team. I know they were all upset I couldn’t play.”
Castano’s older brother, Steven, was a fine forward at North Bergen, where the family once lived, so the younger Castano had some idea about Hudson County high school soccer – but he was never going to get a chance to play.
Earlier this year, Castano was training with the Red Bulls Academy in Florida when he received a phone call from his agent.
“I was surprised when I received a call at 10 a.m. one morning and my agent said, ‘I’m talking to the new goalkeeper for the Red Bulls,’” Castano said. “I couldn’t believe it. They offered me a contract to play for the team.”
The Red Bulls wanted to insure that they kept Castano’s services and not allow him to play anywhere else, so they locked him up with a professional Major League Soccer contract with the big club.
So at the tender age of 17, Castano became a professional soccer player, playing for the team that plays in practically his own neighborhood. The Red Bulls play in Red Bull Arena in Harrison and train at Montclair State University.
“Some of the other guys come from all over the country or all over the world,” Castano said. “I’m right here with the team from my hometown. It’s such an honor. I’m just thankful and blessed for the opportunity. It’s been a long process, but I’m here.”
Castano was hard at work last week, keeping himself ready in case he gets the call to man the nets for the Red Bulls. Right now, Castano, who just turned 18 years old last week, is the main backup to starter Luis Robles. The team also has Ryan Meara to play goal, but Meara is still recovering from hip surgery he had midway through last season.
“Santi has shown enough qualities to be here,” said Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke, a resident of Hoboken during his playing days with the team. “He’s very young and inexperienced, but he has all the qualities you want in a goalie, so we hooked him up to be with us. We think he has a big, bright future. He’s shown over the last two years with the Academy that he can play. If we develop him right, he has a chance to be a very good goalie, but we’re taking our time with him.”
So for now, Castano serves as the backup to Robles and plays in the team’s reserves game every week.
“There’s something special with him, so why not lock him up now?” Petke said. “We’ve seen a lot of good things in him. We’re not signing a local kid just because he’s local. He has to prove he belongs. He’s done that, so it’s a win-win situation for us, because we want to develop local kids from the Academy. It’s important to have.”
Last year, Connor Lade of Morristown went from being an Academy player to a starter with the big club.
“Santi has a little bit of everything,” Petke said. “He has good size, strength, athleticism. He has all the tools. I think it’s a perfect situation for someone who is up and coming like Santi. He’s doing well and has played well with the reserves. He knows he’s the young guy on the team who has to work hard.”
At 18, Castano is the youngest player on the regular Red Bulls’ roster.
There are times where Castano has to almost pinch himself; that he’s actually on the same team with such international superstars like Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill.
“It’s unbelievable,” Castano said. “These are guys that I used to watch all the time on television and now I’m on the same team with them. I’m learning so much from being on the same team. I can ask them about other things, other than soccer, and get their feedback.”
Castano knows that it’s all about being patient, biding his time.
“It’s all about timing, especially for a goalkeeper,” Castano said. “I’m just going to wait for my chance and keep working. Hopefully, it comes soon.”
Castano was told that he was the first player from Hudson County (outside of Kearny and Harrison) to become a professional soccer player in almost 30 years.
“I didn’t know that,” Castano said. “It’s incredible. I’m still the same guy. I’m nothing special. I’m just fortunate to have a chance to play for a team so close to my home. I have a good group of goalkeepers to learn from. Most importantly, I can’t stop competing. I’m going to work extra hard and be patient. My time will come.”
But for now, Castano is living the dream.
“Ever since I was a little boy, this was my dream,” Castano said. “I don’t consider this a job. I’m having fun every day and I’m learning. I love doing this and I want to be doing it for the rest of my life. I just hope I can continue and be someone who plays for a very long time.”
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.