Mauro Manotas landed in Houston in May of 2015 as a 19-year-old, eager for the next step in his soccer career 1,800 miles from home and family. The soft-spoken forward traded his small hometown of Sabanalarga, in the far north of Colombia, for Houston, a sprawling metropolis near the Texas Gulf Coast.
He spent his first two weeks in Texas at a hotel arranged by the club, with transportation provided to and from the team’s practice facility. The solitude of his first fortnight in America gave way to the comfort and hospitality of his new residence in the home of the Chavez family in Missouri City, 20 miles southwest of downtown Houston with a population of 74,000, similar in size to his Colombian hometown.
Dynamo VP/general manager Matt Jordan scouted Manotas in Colombia before signing him to an MLS contract on the eve of the close of the transfer window last May. Jordan promised Manotas’ parents he’d find their son a comfortable living situation and immediately searched for a host family, an unusual arrangement in MLS but a logical fit for a teenager leaving South America for the first time.
Ed and Ingrid Chavez, of Mexican and Guatemalan descent, respectively, volunteered to host Manotas due to Ed’s longstanding connection to the club, including a security role on game days at BBVA Compass Stadium. The fit was natural, as the Chavez’s have two teenage children – a son, Chad, who is the same age as Mauro (both 21 now), and daughter, Haley, now 17 years old.
“I thought it was cool,” Haley said of Manotas’ arrival. “We used to go to all the games and my parents called my ‘Ching’s Girl’ because I was obsessed with (Brian) Ching.”
After a happy stay in his first season with the Dynamo, Manotas returned to the Chavez home ahead of the 2016 preseason. One might expect a young player to lean upon a host family early on in a new place but later yearn for their freedom, but the decision to stay wasn't a very hard one.
“We made a decision as a whole (last) October, that he would be coming back this year. His parents came in October and we made the decision; his parents really wanted him to come back. [It was] not a huge conversation, it was just expected.”
The families connected during the Manotas’ visit, with Haley taking Mauro’s 15-year-old sister to the Museum of Fine Arts along with her friends. The Chavez’s also showed the Manotas family a Texas high school football game, with the band’s halftime performance a standout memory.
Ingrid explained the new family dynamic: “Since moving in, he’s pretty much been a Chavez. We fixed his room, he had his own TV and everything and we just tried to accommodate him and we tried to make him feel as comfortable as possible considering it was all new to him. He has really blended in with us perfectly. He’s my other son.”
Manotas already has a place on the refrigerator
PART OF THE FAMILY
Mauro settled in quickly, cozy enough to walk around the house as he might his childhood home outside Barranquilla.
“He was walking around without his shirt pretty fast,” Chad recalled.
“That was awkward,” Ingrid offered candidly. “Woah, we don’t do that! He’s comfortable.”
Early on, Manotas’ palate was forced to adjust from one built around beef to allow for more chicken and green vegetables, both staples in the Chavez home. Another transition – adjusting to central cooling – is still a work in progress.
“He’s always cold,” Ingrid said. “He’s used to not having central AC.”
Manotas also had to learn American driving rules and customs as well as navigate Houston’s endless series of freeways and toll roads.
“He learned the way we drive here,” Ingrid said. “He took the online driving course and took the [DMV] test. He’s a very slow driver – he will never get a ticket for speeding.”
Manotas and Chad have forged a friendship living together and are constant companions, whether shopping at the Galleria, going to Houston Astros games, or playing FIFA together. The pair also help sharpen each others’ language skills—Manotas picking up English, and Chad brushing off his Spanish.
“Chad’s Spanish has improved drastically thanks to Mauro,” Ingrid said. “For Ed and I, Spanish is our first language. We speak English to each other and Spanish to Mauro. He is working on his English.”
The Chavez kids are soccer players themselves, and Manotas supports his American siblings by attending Haley’s soccer games at Dulles High School as well as Chad’s men’s league games.
“I feel like I’m at home,” Manotas said. “It’s the same as in Colombia when I would watch my Dad or younger brother play. It’s like I’m back home watching another relative play.”
The family feels the same connection when Manotas is on the field. Ed has worked in a security role outside the Dynamo locker room at BBVA Compass Stadium on game days for several years. Ingrid, Chad and Haley watch the games from the stands with the emotional attachment one might expect.
“I’m totally the Mom role, ‘C’mon Mauro!’” Ingrid said. “I’m just very excited, kinda like, ‘That’s our kid out there!’ Because he is like our son.”
Ingrid also keeps Manotas’ mother informed during games, like a news reporter providing updates from BBVA Compass Stadium for a Colombian radio station.
“We use What’sApp and talk on the phone,” Ingrid. “During the games his mom and I are texting each other. If I’m at the game I take pictures and send them to her. We are in constant communication. We are Facebook friends as well.”
The texting extends to Manotas’ phone, with encouragement arriving from the family while he is still on the field.
“We’re texting him even during the game,” Ingrid said. “We have a family group text message and we’ll congratulate him during the game.”
COMFORT EXTENDING TO THE FIELD
Manotas finished his first full season in Houston with a flourish, scoring six goals in the final eight games to finish tied with Andrew Wenger for the team lead. He added three more goals in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup to lead the team with nine goals in all competitions. Manotas started all three Open Cup games but did not receive his first MLS start until August 14 vs. Toronto FC, 15 months after arriving in Houston. The long wait for minutes led to conversations between Ed and Manotas that underscored the benefits of a host family relationship.
“With Mauro coming home and not playing, I didn’t know what to talk about,” Ed said. “Eventually I would say, ‘next time’, and he was pretty sad, but I’d say, ‘You need to keep working hard because they didn’t bring you to start, there are three other players above you that are getting paid to do what you want to do. Keep working hard and fight for that position.’ He was always positive and working hard to achieve what he has now. His parents would call and ask about him. He’s a strong kid.”
Manotas clearly appreciates the role the Chavez’s have played in his transition to the United States.
“I’m not sure how things would’ve turned out,” Manotas replied when asked how things may have gone if he was living by himself. “When I first arrived I was here and alone for two weeks and that was rough. I didn’t eat well and was very uncomfortable. Having the structure really helped me.”
The Chavez’s have an inside look at Manotas’ emotions after the joys of a win or the sorrow of a loss.
“He usually goes straight to his room and stays in his room,” Chad said of Manotas’ reaction to a Dynamo defeat.
“We don’t really talk about it that night,” Ingrid said. “It’s just kind of letting him soak it in and process it his way and then the next day we’ll let him know he did a good job and motivate him and give him positive feedback.”
The personal highlight of Manotas’ early Dynamo career was his hat trick against the Portland Timbers on September 24. The Colombian was the youngest player in Dynamo history and in Major League Soccer this season to score three goals in a game. However, the text updates to Colombia were delayed as Manotas’ auxiliary mother was missing at BBVA Compass Stadium that night, despite a bold prediction from the young striker.
“I couldn’t go to that game because it was Haley’s homecoming and I had to be present for her,” Ingrid said. “Before Mauro left we were in the kitchen and were sitting there and I told him I couldn’t make the game and he said, ’You’re going to miss my three goals.’ Then he gets home that night and tells me, ‘I told you you were going to miss my three goals.'”
“After the game his mom asked me, ‘Who did he dedicate the goals to?’” Ingrid said. “She told me it was her and Mauro’s dad’s anniversary. His mom was crying out of happiness. So I told her, ‘I’ll give him a big hug for you,’ and she said, ‘and a kiss!’”
How does Manotas celebrate a positive home result, such as the hat trick or his two-goal performance in a 3-1 win against Sporting Kansas City in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup in June?
“He still goes to his room,” Chad said. “He's smiling, but he still goes to his room.”
LEASE RENEWED FOR 2017
The Chavez’s complimented Manotas’ professionalism and discipline under their roof. There’s no need to wake him up in the morning ahead of practice, and he cleans his room before every Dynamo road trip.
“We are a very busy family,” Ingrid said. “I teach, so I leave early. He is on his own and he is very disciplined. He always wants to be early.”
While Ingrid is Manotas’ unabashed “second mom,” Ed serves as a fatherly figure, sharing advice on life.
“With Ed, he’s definitely sat me down and we’ve had different talks about approaching life and what I do for a living,” Manotas said. “I’m very grateful for that, to have someone that can share with me as I work my way through this and adjust to living here.”
With his second season in Houston complete, the things he enjoys most about his host family setup are quite simple.
“Security, the structure of having no surprises,” Manotas said. “You’re safe and able to relax in a family environment with comfort.”
Their adopted son also fulfilled a desire for the family, who had plans for his room before his arrival.
“At one point we were trying to be foster parents, and it wasn’t the right time, but we got Mauro,” Ingrid said. “His room was the one we were going to use.”
Manotas will return for his third season with the Dynamo in 2017 and is set to return to the Chavez’s and his familiar home in Fort Bend County as well.
“Now experiencing success on the field, this is where I want to be even more, in this environment,” Manotas said. “I wouldn’t be where I am right now without their support. Moving forward, I definitely want to bring my family and bring my girlfriend and that’s something I’ll evaluate as that comes. Right now, this is the best setting for me.”