Miguel Ángel Navarro always dreamed of coming to the United States to play professional sports.
But, he didn’t think it would be soccer that brought him here.
“My dream was to be a pro baseball player,” Navarro, 21, told Hot Time in Old Town in a wide ranging interview. “Every little kid (in Venezuela) dreams of playing in MLB, coming to the U.S., and playing Major League Baseball. That was mainly my dream. I saw myself like every other kid in Venezuela, trying to get better every day to come play in Major League Baseball.”
The Chicago Fire’s new left back signed with the club in January after playing soccer professionally in his native Venezuela since 2017. He was born in Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second-largest city, which sits in the country’s northwest corner, not far from Colombia and the Dutch islands of Aruba and Curaçao.
In Maracaibo, Navarro grew up idolizing Venezuelan baseball slugger Miguel Cabrera, the two-time American League MVP, and he saw himself following in Cabrera’s footsteps. But, when he was 9 years old, there was a problem at the baseball academy where Navarro was playing. That’s when some pals suggested he switch sports.
“I had friends in school who would tell me to go play football, and would insist that I go try out,” Navarro said. “So, I went and tried out with a club, and I stayed. And that’s where everything kind of started.”
That turned out to be a very good decision. Navarro has made several appearances with the Venezuelan youth national teams, and since joining the Fire, he’s stepped in immediately at left back, splitting time with regular starter Jonathan Bornstein.
“We are very, very happy to have him here,” Fire Head Coach Raphael Wicky said of his new fullback. “I think there is a bright future ahead of him. He works hard, and the good thing, as well, he has a guy in his position with Jonny Bornstein, who has a lot of experience, who speaks his language, as well, who can teach him, who can talk him through things. So we feel that’s a great combination to have, a very young guy, hungry kid and a guy with a lot of experience who is a great person, leader and still top fit.”
He’s not a baseball player anymore, but Navarro is still a big fan, and he’s happy to be playing in a city with two professional baseball teams. Despite the fact that fellow Venezuelan Ozzie Guillén had a stellar career as both a player and manager with the White Sox, Navarro’s not a fan of the South Siders.
“I like the Cubs!” he admitted.
Navarro spoke to Hot Time mostly in Spanish with the help of translator Elizabeth Sanchez from the Fire’s communications team, but he was excited to break out some of the English he’s learned since arriving in Chicago. Navarro has been taking English classes with teammates Gastón Giménez and Ignacio Aliseda in the afternoon after training (Álvaro Medrán is also taking lessons, but he’s in a more advanced class).
Navarro said there’s no doubt whose English is the best in his class.
“Me, me, me!” he said, jokingly.
Navarro said he’s made friends with several of his teammates, but he has a special bond with Aliseda. It makes sense—the two are a little less than a year apart in age. They both arrived in Chicago this year from Spanish-speaking South American countries, and they were immediately forced into quarantine because of the pandemic.
Navarro said his friendship with Aliseda has made the transition to the U.S. easier.
“We’ve hung out together, we’ve gone out to eat, we’ve gone out for walks, and just spent time together,” Navarro said. “So time has passed pretty quickly. And since we’ve been able to return to play, it’s been easier to distract ourselves (from the pandemic) and focus on what we’re here for.”
Navarro is doing all this—playing in a foreign country, learning English, dealing with a pandemic—while being away from his daughter. Today—August 10—is her second birthday.
“It’s been complicated and difficult not being there with her, sharing in all these moments that I used to be able to share with her,” Navarro said. “But, it’s part of my job, and I think that all of this, with me being over here, and the sacrifice of me being away from her, we know for work, and it’s to have a better future for her.”
Navarro made his debut in March against the New England Revolution, grabbing a few minutes at the end of the match. In Orlando at the MLS is Back Tournament, he played big minutes—coming on for Bornstein at halftime of the Seattle match, going the full 90 against San Jose, and playing the final 30 minutes against Vancouver. It’s safe to say so far, he’s impressed Wicky and the coaching staff.
“Miguel is a very, very interesting player,” Wicky said. “I think he brings the modern profile of a full back: very athletic, fast, dynamic, and for his age, I have to say, he’s a very mature, mature kid with understanding the game, analyzing the game and when you talk with him as a person and as a player, he’s quite a mature 21-year-old, I have to say.”
Navarro said he and the team weren’t at all happy with their performance at the tournament, especially in the Whitecaps game.
“We left there having learned a lot,” Navarro said. “What Orlando taught us is that a winning team has to be consistent. We can’t have ups and downs like that. We can’t have a good game, then a bad game, and a regular, more or less, game. We have to be focused. We have to concentrate. We all learned from that.”
The Fire are back in training with an eye on restarting the season August 20 in Columbus. The team is also—finally—scheduled to play a home match at Soldier Field on August 25, albeit with no fans in the stands.
“We know that we’re a young team, but we know what we want, which is championships and titles,” Navarro said. “So, we’re all working together. We know what we want, and we know what we have to do to achieve it.”
Bornstein is around for at least another year, so Navarro will have to fight if he wants to keep getting minutes at left back for the Fire.
He’s up for the challenge, though. Success in America might not look how Navarro thought it would as a kid. He won’t be the next Miggy Cabrera. But, even so, Navarro might just make it in America after all.