Playing under the lights in front of San Antonio soccer fans, Rafa Castillo has always felt welcome. His highlight-quality bicycle kick goal and assist on another goal in the 2014 North American Soccer League championship game was enough to endear him to local fans permanently.
Turning 37 years old in June, Castillo is the oldest player on the San Antonio FC roster by five years. He and his teammates will play their home opener Saturday at Toyota Field in a match against LA Galaxy II.
Castillo’s production remains high – his five goals tied for the club lead in 2016 – but he knows he’s nearing the end of his playing career. With that in mind, the Colombian midfielder is seeking a permanent home after years of living the transient life of an international soccer player.
Plans for a new professional phase run alongside another transition – becoming a permanent resident of the United States.
Castillo has played professionally in San Antonio since signing with the now-defunct San Antonio Scorpions, with whom he won the NASL title. After the Scorpions folded, Castillo became one of the first player signings announced by San Antonio FC in its inaugural 2016 United Soccer League season.
“The last thing I would ever want is for this to end,” Castillo said of his playing career. “Ever since 2014 and up to now, being in San Antonio has been a real dream come true and a perfect situation.”
Castillo is aware that his timing on gaining permanent residency status may not be as good as his pinpoint passing to teammates. Like many immigrants and would-be citizens, he is aware that the current political environment, including immigration policy changes being made under the Trump administration, could affect his quest for a green card.
“Sometimes it can be a little scary, especially because of today’s political climate,” said Castillo, speaking through an interpreter. “I can’t say that sometimes I don’t get scared about something going wrong. But at the end of the day, it’s about having patience and confidence that this is something that’s going to get done.”
But Castillo has a powerful ally in his quest for permanent residency: Spurs Sports and Entertainment, San Antonio FC’s ownership group. Castillo and SS&E declined to discuss what kind of help is being provided, but Castillo is obviously appreciative of the organization’s help.
“My family and I are eternally grateful [to] SS&E,” Castillo said. “Their support through this has been incredible, and it wouldn’t be possible without their help so we feel that we owe a lot to them.”
SS&E’s investment in Castillo’s future could pay dividends for the ownership group in a familiar way. He would like to stay with the organization as a coach, much like Becky Hammon went from WNBA fan favorite with the San Antonio Stars to NBA assistant coach with the Spurs. Hammon spent 2007-2014 with the Spurs organization before taking on her new role.
Castillo hopes to work his way up through the club’s top-level youth program, San Antonio FC Pro Academy, and potentially toward a USL coaching position. While all of this is possible with a work visa, establishing permanent residency provides for more stability.
Castillo has made his home in San Antonio with his wife, Karent Gonzalez, and 9-year-old daughter, Luciana. The push for residency means not only establishing the U.S. as his home, but his family’s home.
“For my family and me, it’s extremely exciting because once we have [permanent residency] it will open up a lot more opportunities and open the doors for a lot of good things to happen for us,” he said. “I want my daughter to grow up in San Antonio.”
Before signing with the Scorpions, Castillo transferred clubs 14 times from 2001 to 2013, all with Colombian teams except for one season spent playing in the Egyptian Premier League. He also made a handful of appearances with the Colombian national team.
Castillo has found strength in his faith throughout the application process.
“Obviously, in my mind I want this to happen as soon as possible, but if it ends up taking one year or ends up taking five years, God knows when things happen and why they happen,” he said. “It’s just about having patience and having full confidence that this is something that is happening and is going to get done.”
For now, Castillo is focused on bringing another championship to San Antonio. After just missing the playoffs last season, SAFC is looking to raise its profile both with fans and with Major League Soccer officials as the club hopes to be selected for an expansion franchise.
Opening the 2017 season on the road, SAFC defeated the Rio Grande Valley FC Toros 1-0, the first-ever victory against the regional rivals. Castillo described the win as his club’s version of “El Classico,” and looks to bring that momentum to the home opener at Toyota Field.
“It’s surreal,” Castillo said, his eyes lighting up. “It feels exactly like it did 20 years ago when I played my first home match in Colombia in front of the fans from my city. It’s exciting. There’s a very unique anxiety that comes with it, and it’s very exciting to get to start a season in front of your fans.”