Monache grad, Diego Casillas, signed with Fresno on March 6
The dream — the goal — was to one day play soccer at the professional level.
However with such a lofty ambition, hardships and reality can sometimes deter one to a point where what seemed attainable, becomes impossible.
But not in the case of Diego Casillas.
Born in Mexico, an eight-year-old Casillas came to America and began playing soccer as a way to connect with his father. Casillas father had passed away when he was three but his mother told him his father had named after Diego Armando Maradona, a legendary soccer player for the Argentina national team.
“She told me and I was like, I’m going to start playing soccer,’” Casillas said. “The least I could do is try and make it as far as possible, just to make my dad proud. So that’s the main reason I got into soccer. I got motivated by it.”
On March 6, the 24-year-old Casillas accomplished his goal of playing at the professional level by signing with the United Soccer League Championship squad Fresno FC. Making the cut for the traveling squad, the Monache High School graduate debuted three days later in the 78th minute of the team’s season opening 1-1 decision at Isotopes Park against New Mexico United.
“I was lucky enough to go on that trip,” Casillas said. “I was happy they considered me, that’s good. I was like oh well, that’s the first step. I didn’t think I was going to go in. It was cool, the atmosphere. It was a sold out stadium. 1-1 game. I’m thinking coach is going to put a defender in to hold the game, take a point home and then he calls my name. ... In my head I’m like, ‘Oh snap! ... Right when I stepped in, I thought, ‘Wow, this is crazy.’ I wouldn’t have thought I was going to debut in a stadium like this. In a game like this. Home opener. It was nice.”
Tonight, Casillas looks for a chance to play in Fresno FC’s 7:30 p.m. home opener against Reno 1868 FC at Chukchansi Park.
“It’s nice,” Casillas said. “Knowing that I’m a local player, I have a lot of people that are going to just to hopefully see Diego play. I’m just excited to be there with the team. It’s a home-opener. It’s a whole new team, different guys. Different teammates. It’s awesome. My family, friends are going to be there. I’m going to see them in the stands. It’s not like you miss people. It’s a game that last year, I would go watch them play and I would think, ‘I wish I could be there. I wish I could be there.’ And now, I’m there.”
In attendance will be MHS soccer head coach, Eric Romero, who coached Casillas for over eight years as an assistant coach for the Marauders and also with his club program, Central Cali Soccer Academy. Romero wasn’t able to make Casillas match at New Mexico but he did watch it live on TV.
“For me it was just a little bit of mixed emotions because I know how much work he’s put in,” Romero said. “He comes in the summer, trains with me. I see the work, and he’s always been struggling to be where he’s at. And he chased his dream. … Because of his height, he always struggled with being looked at professionally but I said you’ve got to keep on grinding. To me it was a satisfying moment because I’ve worked with him for almost I could say probably around eight years now that we’ve been working on soccer, trying to get him to where he needs to be.”
On Romero, Casillas said, “Eric Romero really helped me a lot. I come from a family where I was always away from my mom because she had to work and we had to move houses. But Eric would always pick me up to go to practice. He would always be there for me. I think he saw that I wanted it so bad. I wanted to play soccer.”
A 5-foot-5 midfielder, Casillas was constantly discounted because of his size. But what he lacked in height, he made up for in heart, hard work and speed.
“I always told that if you aren’t good at something, you’ve got to work at something else,” Casillas said. “...With my size, my speed would make up for it. Let’s say I’d lose the ball in the air, I know I wasn’t going to win it so I’d act like I’m going to challenge and just wait for the second the ball would drop and run and get it wherever it was at. I think that being good at something else made up for my height.”
In high school, Casillas helped lead the Marauders to back-to-back East Yosemite League titles in his junior and senior year, an appearance in the 2013 CIF Central Section Division II championship match his final year, as well as the Div. II Valley semifinals the year before. As a senior, Casillas also scored 29 goals and scored in 19 of 25 matches played before joining Taft College’s soccer program.
“It was the best thing that could’ve happened to me,” Casillas said. “...I was lucky enough that even though we lost [Valley] the coach saw my work ethic and he took me to Taft for a couple days of training. The guys that were leaving told him that [I] could develop here.”
At Taft, Casillas found coaches who cared about him and spent extra time helping to improve his game. He started 35 of 39 goals, scored 10 goals, had eight assists through his two seasons at Taft and was a first-team All-Central Valley Conference player his sophomore year.
“That little staying for extra time after practice, it helped me,” Casillas said. “When he did that, it made me realize it’s possible. You just got to put an effort into it and believe in yourself.”
From there, Casillas transferred to California State University, San Bernardino where he scored a team-high seven goals his senior year, started 16 of the team’s 17 matches and once again made an all-conference team.
Casillas nearly stayed in San Bernardino, but was persuaded to come back north to Tulare, by his wife of now two years, Gladiz. Diego said Gladiz’s support was major and she was the first person he told when he learned Fresno FC had a contract for him.
“I called my wife and I told her,” Diego said. “I was excited and she was the first person that needed to know.”
Casillas played four years with Fresno Fuego and Fresno FC’s U23 team. After going to countless combines and tryouts, Casillas garnered the attention of Fresno FC general manager, Frank Yallop, while Yallop was at the USL’s Phoenix Rising FC. Asked to stay one more year with the U23s, Casillas got a shot in preseason with FC and was rewarded with a contract.
“I believed,” Casillas said. “I had faith that they were probably going to give me a chance. ... It was unreal. I was expecting it but glad it happened.”
Above all, Casillas believed in himself and never gave up. On how he’d advise those in similar situations to himself, Casillas kept it simple.
“The main thing I would say is never take no for an answer,” Casillas said. “A lot of people are going to tell you no, a lot of people are going to tell you you’re too small or you’re slow or this and that. You could always work on stuff. If you really want something, you could achieve it. I didn’t believe in that until I said it [and] it was happening. If you work for it, if you put your time to it, if you put effort to it and you want it bad, it’ll happen.”