The 9- and 10-year-old girls training with Chicago Fire Youth Soccer Club coach Christina Murillo are constantly running after the ball during the training session. They learn how to pass the ball to each other and how to shoot at the goal. They laugh and have fun during Monday afternoon trainings, and that is one of Murillo’s goals as a coach – to make surethe players have a good time practicing soccer.
“It’s so much more important that players enjoy the game than me guaranteeing that they’re going to go pro,” said Murillo, head of Pre-Formation Phase (13U-15U) and Community Outreach in Chicago Fire Youth Soccer Club. “We want them to be in competitive environments, but I hope families get the understanding this is supposed to be for fun.”
Murillo, 30, is a role model for the girls and boys in the club. She tries to teach them in every session that it doesn’t matter if they make mistakes – the important thing is to overcome them and keep playing.
“Girls are more hesitant to make mistakes, and in sports, that’s very important” to understand, Murillo said. “I push for the girls to get outside of their comfort zones and be assertive.”
For both boys and girls, Murillo likes that sports can “serve as a platform to work on skills that will help them off the field such as how to best manage emotions within a playing environment and best practices to communicate with teammates to achieve a common goal.”
Murillo’s coaching philosophy and her impact on and off the field were key to the Illinois Youth Soccer Association’s decision to give her the 2022 Female Coach of the Year award in December.
Christina Murillo played for the for Lithuanian club GintraUniversitetas in 2017 and Chicago Red Stars in 2018.She coaches youth group at the Fire Pitch on NorthTalman Ave. in Chicago. (Diana Giambona/MEDILL)
“Christina brings a lot of passion to the field, she works incredibly hard, she has a good understanding of the game and I think she has high standards because she’s played at a very high level herself,” said Nate Boyden, Youth Technical Director for Chicago Fire Youth Soccer Club. “She can connect and relate to the players, and also push them along in their development so that they become better soccer players.”
Murillo’s parents emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico. She was born and raised in California where her passion for soccer began when she was four years old and watched her older brothers playing. She started playing at home before starting school and went on to compete at the highest level. In 2010 she was called up by the Mexico National Soccer Teamand competed in the U-17 World Cup in Trinidad andTobago. Two years later, she played as a defender in the U-20 World Cup in Japan, and in 2015 she represented Mexico in the Women’s World Cup in Canada.
Her experience as a professional player and her competitive spirit are reflected in her training sessions. The girls have fun playing soccer, but also follow their coach’s directions with discipline and try to improve at every opportunity.
Although Murillo never thought of coaching children, she now says it is “amazing” working with them.
“To see them grow as people has been the most gratifying thing,” Murillo said. “I tell people all the time, I love my job every single day.”
Christina Murillo coaches girls and boys of different ages. (Diana Giambona/MEDILL)
In addition to physical training, Murillo stresses the importance of psychologically preparing young players.
“The mental part is of the utmost importance to me and since day one of coaching, that’s been more of my emphasis,” she said. “There’s going to be a lot of kids who can play soccer well, but I think the ones that don’t know how to handle adversity, that’s going to be a lot harder for them.”
Murillo recalls that, in her experience as a player, the psychological pressure was very hard, and that is why she is concerned that her players always have a good time training.
“It’s hard when you as a player put the burden of a whole country on yourself thinking that if you don’t do well, you’re letting down millions of people,” she said.
Murillo decided to stop playing and focus on coaching. She has been working in the Chicago Fire Youth Soccer Club since 2019 and one of her objectives is to promote the empowerment of girls and women through sports.
“I want every girl in our club to come out feeling like a leader,” she said. “Whether they continue with soccer[or not], that’s okay. But it’s more important to me that they develop skills that make them into the best versions of themselves after soccer.”
According to EY and espnW report, 94% of women in the C-suite played sports, including 52% at the university level.
“Soccer and sports, in general, are just like a very good environment to develop leadership skills,” Murillo said.
In Chicago, more and more girls are becoming interested in playing soccer, and role models like coach Murillo can show them that it is possible to become professional players.
“When it comes to the youth soccer on the girls’ side, I see that it is growing in Chicago,” Boyden said. “Still, there is a gap and work to do in providing opportunities for young female players and to help them fall in love with the game.”
Soccer is becoming an ever more popular sport in the United States. Murillo said that it is a sport that allows everyone to connect culturally and is a space where young people can make friends.
Murillo said Chicago athletic programs have underestimated the population of youth soccer players including Latino players. “There isn’t a huge population of players but there is a Latino market that wants to play and my goal, from who I am and my background, is to make our program more accessible,” Murillo said.
Chicago Fire Youth Soccer Club offers programming for ages 5 to 19 years old. Over the past year, the club has been working on new youth soccer development initiatives aimed at increasing access and pathways for players and coaches in the Midwest to engage with Chicago Fire Academy.
“We want to be at the forefront of providing access opportunities, and furthering the knowledge, whether that’s soccer skills, or improving personal kind of developmental skills for players and coaches,” said Jamie Lyons, Executive Director for Youth Soccer for the Chicago Fire FC.
The 2023 Women’s World Cup will be held in July and August in Australia and New Zealand, where the U.S. team will be one of the favorites. In 2026, the United States, along with Mexico and Canada, will host the Men’s World Cup. Murillo, Boyden and Lyons agree that these two events will be very important to continue promoting soccer among the young. The girls and boys who now train at the club will watch their idols play and prove that reaching the top of soccer – and a dream or two – is possible.
Cover Photo Credit: Coach Christina Murillo transmits her passion for soccer to girls and boys in training session at Chicago Fire Youth Soccer Club. (Diana Giambona/MEDILL).
Diana Giambona got a degree in journalism from Universidad de La Laguna (Tenerife, Spain). She is a graduate student at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University specializing in sports media. She has experience covering topics such as politics, society, sports and culture.
IL Latino News partners with Medill School of Journalism and many schools of higher education in providing students mentoring and real work experiences.