Sometimes when a door opens a youngster runs pell-mell through it without realizing he’s entering a whole new world. City High senior soccer player Fernando Pacheco seized the opportunity he found on the other side and made the most of it.
When he was in elementary school Pacheco and his brother Alejandro were already avid soccer players.
“I don’t know, having the ball with me and scoring goals made me happy,” Fernando said, explaining his attachment to the game.
The two were part of an after-school program in sixth grade called Puertas Abiertas (“open door”). Andrew McKnight was one of the coaches for the Alliance soccer club who helped Pacheco through the program.
“These two kids were really just infectious for the game and just really neat children,” McKnight said. “Their enthusiasm for soccer was unparalleled. They were clearly kids that loved the game. They were very good players at an early age.”
So McKnight helped to get the boys into the club program which might otherwise have been closed to them. That seemingly small gesture paid big dividends.
“It was huge,” McKnight said. “We were able to do that for a lot of kids, but not everyone takes advantage of the opportunity.”
But he didn’t leave it at that. He also tried to make sure Fernando understood the importance of academics to his future success both in soccer and out.
“He was always the type of kid, and I still believe this, who has all the tools to go on and play for a contract,” McKnight said. “He’s a very creative player, a very skillful player, but I wanted to make sure he knew there’s a very, very minute, small percentage of players who go on and play at the pro level and that his route to the pro level like for a lot of top players might be through the collegiate ranks.”
McKnight emphasizes that he wasn’t the only one mentoring Pacheco at this stage of his life, and the boys have a supportive family, but McKnight certainly opened more than his share of doors for him.
“He’s been there helping me to start with club soccer, but he’s also helped me in my personal life guiding me on my education and soccer,” Pacheco said.
McKnight took him to tryouts with the Chicago Fire Academy and a Mexican first-division team, Monterrey, and to college camps. While Pacheco didn’t make the teams his experience was invaluable. Those rejections made it clear that college soccer would be an important step for Pacheco.
His freshman year at City was not a good one academically, and he had to sit out some of the soccer season because of grades. That setback impressed upon him the need to pick up his effort academically and do so immediately.
“He’s been an academic standout since then,” McKnight said. “He’s done all this. It’s been Fernando’s effort. It’s a combination of his persistence and his own intellect.”
He has signed to play college soccer at Western Illinois and will study business or economics.
On the field he is dynamic in both scoring goals and setting up teammates. He was a first-team all-state selection and the Mississippi Valley Conference divisional player of the year last season as City reached the state tournament before being upset in the quarterfinals.
“There is no doubt about his abilities as a soccer player, technically, tactically or his love, his passion,” City High coach Jose Fajardo said. “He is excited to practice just like somebody who doesn’t know better.”
According to Fajardo a goal scorer, which is what Pacheco is, has to be smart, patient and cold-blooded, meaning that when the opportunity arises he can put the ball in the net and not tense up and bash it over the bar.
“He has that. He has the technical ability; he has the calmness; he knows that he can do it,” Fajardo said.
Fajardo said the next step for a player of his caliber is to perform under pressure in the most important situations. That would take him from a good player to a very good player, a player who makes a difference even at the next level.
Fajardo lauds Pacheco’s work ethic and his humble approach. A captain, he retains empathy for young players who may have messed up and are subject to suspensions. He is grateful for the second chance he received as a freshman and reaches out to those kids.
“He talks very little but when he talks people listen,” Fajardo said. “That is very important to me because I know if I have to get mad at somebody through him, he’s going to tell that person and he’ll do it in a good way.”
Pacheco seems to understand and appreciate all the people who have helped him.
“Every coach that I’ve had has given me a little something,” Fernando said, “like how to read the game. Things I need to improve like inside the game that I don’t see but they see.”
Pacheco defers credit for his scoring ability.
“Even the best player in the world needs teammates to score goals. So I think my teammates have helped me a lot,” he said. “But you have to work hard to look for those goals. Coaches always tell you you have to look around for options. Don’t just keep your head down. Always have your head up.”
That way you can see through those open doors.