BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — When Nery Castillo made his MLS debut in the 56th minute of the Fire’s Aug. 8 match against the New York Red Bulls, he didn’t just receive a standing ovation from the 21,868 in attendance at Toyota Park – he had fireworks shot off in his honor, too.
Unfortunately, that grand introduction might have been the high water mark of the Mexican forward’s first half-season in MLS. Signed by the Fire to a Designated Player contract in mid July, Castillo never quite recovered from a sluggish start, struggling to bring his fitness and his game up to the levels fans know he's capable of.
The attacker's stat line (no goals and no assists in eight appearances) wasn’t anywhere near what was expected, and fans and the front office alike will be looking for a lot more from the former Shakhtar Donetsk man in 2011.
But will he improve? Will the player who starred – and became a YouTube legend for his gorgeous goal against Brazil – in the 2007 Copa America ever return?
If we’re to believe what we saw over the second half of last season, Castillo will unlikely regain the form that made him a $27 million man. When he played, he rarely showed any real attacking bite as he lumbered through games as a winger or supporting striker.
But if we’re to believe the hype – and all of those YouTube highlights – things start to look a bit different. We see a player that is capable of being a game changer, one who can stun defenders with his footwork and finish chances like the best of them.
How Castillo fares in the final year of his year-and-a-half-long loan will go a long way in determining how far the Fire goes. If he turns it on, playing like he used to, when he would evade defenders to score or find the open man, Chicago will improve.
If he continues to struggle, however, the Fire’s 2011 season will be a dud, and his career – once thought to be so promising – may completely fizzle out.
Sam Stejskal covers the Chicago Fire for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @samstejskal.
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