While the Chicago Fire was having a breakout season in MLS, Joey Calistri was helping the Tulsa Roughnecks have a breakout season of their own in the USL.
Calistri, a homegrown midfielder from Deerfield who made 14 appearances as a rookie with the Fire last year, has been on loan with Tulsa since the start of the season and has helped the Roughnecks go from having the worst record in the league in 2016 to being in a playoff spot currently. Calistri made 16 appearances, 13 of which were starts, and totaled five goals and two assists.
The Fire recalled Calistri this week and he was back in training. The 23-year-old could be another attacking option off the bench for the Fire.
“I always knew that if I played well enough hopefully I would get a shot to come back, but they just called me up and said we’re flying you back so I didn’t ask so many questions,” Calistri said on Tuesday.
Calistri racked up 1,235 minutes, which is nearly four times the total he got with the Fire last season (348). He was a regular starter while primarily playing as an attacker on the right side.
“I was able to get consistent 90 minutes every week, which is huge for fitness, for confidence, for everything and getting a couple goals out there helps the confidence,” Calistri said.
The Northwestern product said rosters aren’t as deep in the USL, but praised the level of play overall. He noted that the intensity is high because the players are trying to earn a spot in MLS.
On top of getting a confidence boost and gaining experience, Calistri said he was trying to work on his play near the goal.
“The thing I wanted to improve was creating goals and creating chances for other guys,” Calistri said. “I think my distribution was something that got a lot better out there and I was able to calm down more in the final third, find the final pass and do a lot better with that.”
Now that he’s back with the Fire, Calistri is hoping to make a bigger impact than he did last year. Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez noted in May how important it was for Calistri to get more playing time.
“I think this extended playing time has been very good for him,” Rodriguez said. “He’s proven to be what he was in our academy and what he was at Northwestern, which is a guy who finds a way to score goals and menace defenses.”
Calistri doesn’t know what his role will be with the Fire this year. He said coach Veljko Paunovic hasn’t communicated any specifics yet. Calistri doesn’t even know if the Fire intend to keep him around all year or send him back to Tulsa at some point.
One thing he does know about the Fire is that the team is very different from a year ago. Calistri was able to watch every game the Fire played and noticed the changes within the team.
“The thing I noticed was how calm we were on the ball,” he said. “I think that was probably the biggest difference I noticed. When we knocked the ball around the back there was a purpose and there was an identity to who we were. We didn’t just pass the ball around because we didn’t have options. We did that to stretch the other team out and then from then we were able to find pockets and little spaces behind.”
As Calistri came back from loan, defender Patrick Doody went on loan to Saint Louis FC, the Fire's previous USL affiliate. Doody, another homegrown player, has played there on loan each of the past two years. Doody hasn’t made an appearance for the Fire since his rookie year in 2015.