Chicago Fire homegrowns looking for opportunities to grow
The Chicago Fire went young in a big way this winter, but the timeout MLS teams took for the COVID-19 pandemic could affect those young players the most.
After a layoff of more than three months, the Fire is training as a group again and preparing for the MLS is Back tournament scheduled to begin July 8 in Orlando. Each MLS team will get at least three games in the tournament, which will count toward the regular-season standings.
Players young and old are working to regain match fitness in preparation for the tournament, but the young players lost valuable time working with the first team in a highly competitive environment.
"I will play the guys who are the best, the guys who are ready, the guys who I think can contribute the most for this club to win games and make points," Fire coach Raphael Wicky said during a video conference call Tuesday with the media. "And if that is a young player then he will play."
In the past several months the Fire signed six teenagers to homegrown contracts: goalkeeper Chris Brady (Naperville), midfielder Javier Casas (Addison), midfielder Brian Gutierrez (Bridgeview), forward Alex Monis (Naperville), midfielder Allan Rodriguez (Elkhart, Indiana) and defender Nicholas Slonina (Addison).
They join fellow teenagers Andre Reynolds II (Chicago), a defender, and Gabriel Slonina (Addison), a goalkeeper, signed a year ago. Neither player saw first-team time in 2019.
"A lot of those academy guys are very young," Wicky said.
Mauricio Pineda, a 22-year-old defender from Bolingbrook via the University of North Carolina, also signed a homegrown contract in the off-season. He started the Fire's two games before the 2020 season was suspended due to the pandemic, a loss and a draw.
It could help the youngsters get in the game that Wicky will be allowed to use up to five substitutes a game, two more than usual, during the tournament. But Wicky said he's not going to use subs just because he can.
"I'm not going to give presents. That's not my job," Wicky said.
The Fire can bring 28 players to Florida for the tournament, four of them goalkeepers. Wicky did not specify which players he would bring.
"Some of the guys will come to Orlando. Some of the guys won't come to Orlando," Wicky said.
Ordinarily some of the youngsters might be sent to a USL club to train and earn game time at a lower professional level, but that might be more difficult to bring about as leagues attempt to resume play.