Juan Castilla’s family moved from Colombia to Houston when he was just three years old in hopes of providing a better future for their son and being closer to relatives. Thanks in large part to his incredible talents on the pitch, Castilla has certainly made the most of the opportunities created, joining the Dynamo Academy in 2016 with the U-12 team, spending time in Spain and with the Columbus Crew SC Academy over the next two seasons, before joining the Dynamo again this season.
“I left for a bit to go to Spain and Columbus, which were experiences that helped me grow a lot,” Castilla said. “This is my first year back [in Houston] though, and I feel that I’m a much better player than when I left. I’m just glad that I can bring what I’ve learned back to Houston.”
For Castilla, the opportunity to be a part of the Club again is exciting, and he has hit the ground running, becoming an integral member of the U-17 team and earning call-ups to train with the First Team under the direction of new head coach Tab Ramos.
“It’s actually mind-blowing because my dad always talks about Tab [Ramos] and watching him play while growing up,” Castilla explained. “I didn’t get to experience watching him while growing up, but just hearing my dad talk about him is pretty cool, and I know he was a legend for the United States, so it’s cool to see him work and try to learn from him. I will take any little piece of advice I can get from him.
The importance of these First Team trainings is not lost on Castilla either, who is eager to learn and test his mettle against the professionals, already noticing improvement in his game.
“I just want to learn and grow every day and watching the pros that have been doing it their whole life as well. I want to learn everything I can every single day and trying to implement what they have in their game back into mine, and I think my game has grown a lot,” said Castilla. “Especially over the short period of time that I’ve been with the First Team. Mentally, I feel like my game has improved and gotten faster. My decisions, I make them quicker. Also, playing with Kiki [Struna] and people like that who are physically at the pro level, I need to be able to think quicker.”
Two weeks ago, Castilla traveled with the First Team to Arizona, for the 2020 Visit Tucson Sun Cup preseason tournament, and earned valuable minutes in some of the organized scrimmages.
“I had a week of training with the [First Team], and it was a hard week,” Castilla admitted. “Everybody there is competing for a spot, but I feel like I was at the level. The build-up to the game, it was a good professional experience. Then, when at the game, just walking out and seeing all those fans, obviously for a regular professional game that’s normal, but for me, I’ve never played in front of so many people. To be honest, I thought it would get to my head a little bit more, but once I started playing, they weren’t even there.”
While the First Team experiences are exciting, Castilla remembers that he is also a vital member of the U-17 team. In fact, Castilla played a crucial role in the 17s earning a top-two finish in the Generation adidas Cup Qualifying Tournament, helping the team clinch a spot in the GA Cup Final in April. Placed into Group A of the Final, the 17s will compete against Chicago Fire FC, Olympiacos FC and CA Boca Juniors in hopes of making it out of the group stage. There are also seven other MLS academies in the fold, as well as notable international clubs such as CA River Plate, Sao Paulo FC and CD Guadalajara.
“Training with [the First Team] helps me be able to bring that same level when I come down with the Academy,” stated Castilla. “When I’m back with the Academy, I feel like the game becomes a bit easier. But I’m really excited, because I’m pretty sure it’s the first time the Dynamo have gotten into the [Final] division, and just being able to do that for not just the Club, but for the city is a really big honor. There is going to be some pretty good competition. I’m proud of the boys and how we’ve performed in the past qualifying stages, and I feel that we have a pretty good team and can definitely compete.”
His life isn’t entirely dominated by soccer though, as Castilla still has to balance schoolwork along with his extended training sessions. Enrolled in the University of Texas Online Highschool, Castilla might have a slightly different high school experience than most teenagers, but the work is still the same.
“Obviously, being in online school makes it more flexible for me,” explained Castilla. “I usually wake up around 7:30 a.m., get to training at 9:30, and be on the field by 10. Usually it’s about an hour session, an hour and fifteen, then I get home, shower, and do schoolwork. The second session starts at 3:30 p.m., then I finish that and get back home around 6 and do more schoolwork.”
Regardless of the numerous successes he is experiencing both on and off the field, Castilla keeps a level head and does his best to represent his city in the best way he knows, by winning.
“I mean every single time I put the jersey on, it’s an honor to be known as one of the best in Houston. Every game, I have to fight and go for the win.”