Thomas Chacon packed two large suitcases, stuffed a backpack with belongings and, with his agent, boarded a plane back home in Uruguay earlier this month bound for a new world.
The newly acquired Minnesota United midfielder made the trans-hemispheric journey to the Twin Cities on the day he celebrated his 19th birthday, no less.
Veteran teammate Vito Mannone knows the feeling.
Mannone was just 17 when English Premier League manager Arsene Wagner — already well on his way to becoming famed for finding young talent and reimagining soccer — discovered him in northwest Italy and brought him to Arsenal in 2005.
Unlike American teenagers who jump into the NBA after a year of college, Mannone found himself in a new land and a new league, unable to speak the language all around him, much like Chacon, who previously played for a team five hours from his home.
“It’s a great experience, a massive experience,” Mannone said. “Everything is so new. He just needs to enjoy it. Enjoy it as much as possible.”
Mannone had taken one English class back in Italy, but his classroom became the pitch. His new teammates were his surrogate teachers while he studied elsewhere whenever he could.
“I couldn’t speak fluent English,” said Mannone, now 31 and 14 years a professional. “I had a very good English teacher. You need to learn straight away. The first thing I learned was everything about football and how to shout on the pitch.”
As his team’s last defense, a goalkeeper who can’t communicate with teammates is problematic.
So Mannone learned the very basics he needed to know, and he made sure his new teammates heard him.
“I wasn’t fluent, but everybody understood me on the pitch,” Mannone said. “Despite being young, I always was the same as I am now: I like to scream and be loud. After that, you bond and build relationships with people and you start to talk every day and you lead the life and you learn. Thankfully, I had a good school in Italy first and then I had good preparation for two, three months with a teacher before I went to England.
Once at London-based Arsenal, Mannone took classes for another year.
“I slowly started to learn and build it up, but it took years before I was fluent,” he said. “Even now, I make mistakes.”
Rookie Chase Gasper was the first new teammate who, with his broken Spanish, approached Chacon on the training field his first full day in Minnesota. Since then, Spanish-speaking Darwin Quintero and particularly Miguel Ibarra have provided guidance and translation now that his agent has gone home while Chacon adapts on the field as well.
Chacon made his MLS debut in 24-plus minutes as a second-half substitute at Sporting Kansas City last week. He was not one of five international players coach Adrian Heath selected to play Tuesday in the U.S. Open Cup final at Atlanta United. He could have an expanded role Sunday at LAFC after a training session Thursday that Heath called “outstanding.”
Chacon calls Minneapolis a “very beautiful city” and Minnesota a place that has “left a big impression” upon him.
“It’s just a very different place to be from Uruguay,” he said.
Chacon said his family and friends will come to visit, but probably not until next season.
“This season might not work out because there’s only so much left,” said Chacon, who has signed to play for United for the next five seasons.
Ibarra has befriended Chacon, showing him around, guiding him in finding a place to live and giving him rides until he gets adjusted and gets his own car.
Chacon left the village where he was raised in southwestern Uruguay to play two seasons for first-division Danubio FC in Montevideo, his country’s capital. Now he has left home again.
“He has a lot of Spanish speakers around him here,” Heath said. “He’s going to be fine, but he’ll have his moments. At 19 years of age, it’s never easy when you move on. But he did it in Uruguay — where he played five hours from where he lived — so he’s used to being away from home.”