Fire defender Jonathan Campbell not buying into rookie wall

Fire defender Jonathan Campbell not buying into rookie wall

The ‘rookie wall’ is something that often gets trumpeted as a narrative in various sports.

As professional seasons go longer, rookies enter uncharted territory for how long they’ve been in-season. Sometimes performance takes a dip and the ‘rookie wall’ is to blame. Some growing pains occur and adjustments to the rigors of a long professional season are made.

The Chicago Fire entered the season with six young players new to Major League Soccer on the roster, three of which have earned fairly regular playing time. Brandon Vincent began the season as a spot starter before earning more consistent minutes lately. Rodrigo Ramos was a regular earlier in the season, but hasn’t played in the past six MLS matches. Jonathan Campbell earned his starting spot at centerback very quickly and hasn’t given it up since.

Even Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez gave his own version of the rookie wall when talking about young players like Ramos and Campbell.

“I think Jonathan Campbell continues to give everything he has,” Rodriguez said on Thursday. “I just think he’s tired. I think he’s mentally tired, but even in the game against D.C. where the backline struggled under the weight of playing with 10 men and three games in eight days, he still gave everything he had. He’s a smart enough young man to start to learn, ‘I have to play differently when I’m tired.’ I see progress there in a moment where the result was difficult.”

While Rodriguez didn’t explicitly say Campbell’s performance has dropped, he did say the North Carolina product was tired. That’s not how Campbell sees it though.

The Fire’s 6-2 loss at D.C. last weekend was the team’s third match in eight days. Midfielder Khaly Thiam picked up a red card in the first half, which put more stress on an already stretched team. Campbell thinks that had more to do with any signs of fatigue than the long season.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say hitting a wall,” Campbell said after Saturday's 3-0 win against Philadelphia. “I think it’s just when you have games really tight, obviously a lot of people are going to be tired at this point and when you have three games in (eight) days I think everyone will be feeling it. After you’ve been playing for a whole season it’s going to be very difficult. I think those points are just really hard and you have to do a lot with recovery.”

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Campbell is second on the Fire both in games played (25) and games started (23), only behind Johan Kappelhof by one in each category. The Fire have asked a lot of the rookie defender and for the most part he has answered the call.

Campbell says he has put a lot of focus on recovery and doing all the right things to prepare his body for the grind of a professional athlete. The veteran goalkeeper behind him, Sean Johnson, has noticed that.

“I think he’s a model professional,” Johnson said of Campbell. “Even though it’s his first year he does everything he can to make sure he’s the best he can be when he steps on the pitch. For us to support him as a first-year player, he’s done a fantastic job so he’ll do what he can to recover and be 100 percent every single game.”

Adjusting to the little things in preparing for each match and day of training is something Campbell says he has prioritized.

“From the beginning I’ve tried to focus a lot on recovery, just doing things off the field and making sure that I’m ready for the next practice, the next game,” Campbell said. “Mainly I was just trying to stay very consistent with that so it hasn’t changed too much, but it’s pretty difficult to maintain doing that day in, day out.”

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away


Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

It may be a good thing that the Fire’s originally scheduled season opener March 3 at Colorado got moved back.

The Fire’s preseason has been riddled with injuries to key players and the extra week may end up being needed to get the team ready for the season. Four players (not counting the already known long-term injuries to Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic) sat out Saturday’s game against Florida Gulf Coast University due to injury: Daniel Johnson (a right ankle injury suffered in a game against Philadelphia on Feb. 8), Grant Lillard (left knee), Matt Polster (left knee) and Luis Solignac (left hip).

Polster’s injury is especially notable because he has had recurring left knee problems since first suffering a sprain in the 2016 season finale at Toronto. Polster missed the first nine games of 2017 due to the injury and missed three more in August due to a related injury.

The 24-year-old, who is now the longest tenured player on the team and the only player remaining from before general manager Nelson Rodriguez’s tenure began at the end of the 2015 season, arrived with the Fire after playing with the U.S. national team in January. He played all 90 minutes on Jan. 28 against Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Bastian Schweinsteiger still hasn’t played in the preseason and the team hasn’t listed him as injured.

All the absences, combined with rest for some of the team’s regulars, resulted in a starting lineup against Florida Gulf Coast that featured two players who have appeared in an official match with the Fire. Three trialists and four draft picks started.

Four of the Fire’s seven scheduled preseason matches are in the books. The Fire lost 2-1 to Montreal on Feb. 14. One of the bright spots was a rare set piece goal after the Fire trailed the Impact 2-0. Dax McCarty headed in a free kick from Diego Campos. Campos has been dangerous on set pieces, hitting the post with a free kick and assisting a goal from a corner kick in Saturday’s 2-0 win against Florida Gulf Coast.

Next up is a match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Feb. 21. Next Saturday the Fire play at Orlando to finish up play in Florida.

The Fire close out the preseason March 3 against the team’s USL affiliate, Tulsa, at Toyota Park before the season opener on March 10.

Fire notes: Bastian Schweinsteiger yet to play in preseason


Fire notes: Bastian Schweinsteiger yet to play in preseason

The Fire's preseason is two games old, but not much action has taken place in those games.

The opener was a 2-0 win against the University of South Florida, the Fire's host during this phase of the preseason, and Thursday's match against the Philadelphia Union was a scoreless draw. It's still early in the preseason and it has looked like it, but there have been some notable things.

For one, Bastian Schweinsteiger hasn't played yet. According to a team source the plan was for the German to sit out these two games. The 33-year-old did show some signs of a relative lack of fitness during scrimmages at the newly-build Toyota Park Dome (he had his hands firmly on his knees after one session despite still showing quality on the ball). The season opener is still over a month away so it's not a red flag.

Newly added winger Aleksandar Katai hasn't joined the team yet, but is expected to do so for the next phase of the preseason. Thursday is the team's travel day for a return to Chicago. The team has the weekend off before returning to Florida, this time in Bradenton, on Sunday.

Katai last played on Oct. 24 so he may need some time to get up to full speed, but so does the rest of the team at this time of year. How he is used will be worth watching. Will he be a straight replacement for David Accam (at least in terms of position) or will he be a more versatile option? Luis Solignac, Daniel Johnson and rookie Jon Bakero have played in the attacking midfield spots with the starting group in both preseason matches.

Defensively, it appears Christian Dean may have the inside track on the starting spot next to Johan Kappelhof. Dean has started next to Kappelhof in both preseason matches and did so in scrimmages in Bridgeview in the first week of the preseason. If that continues, Dean is likely the starter. If coach Veljko Paunovic wants to see someone else play with Kappelhof later in the preseason, there is still an open competition. Dean and rookie Grant Lillard are both left-footed center backs vying for the left center back spot.

Rookie Mo Adams started against USF and was in the second half lineup against Philadelphia. Against the Union, Adams dropped deep to begin attacks as the Fire tried to build out of the back. That trait is not common in young MLS players and is a good sign for Adams' prospects. He won't beat out Schweinsteiger or McCarty, but he could be a valuable bench piece this season, especially with Juninho gone from last year's team, and more in the future.

The recently traded Accam started for Philadelphia and played into the second half, but wasn't a major factor. To be fair, in a scoreless preseason draw few players were major factors. Of the 11 players the Fire started the second half with, Accam only played in a match with one of them (Jonathan Campbell) during his time with the team. The Fire's second half lineup was largely comprised of rookies, trialists and even an academy player.

Finally, Dax McCarty is always good for a good line. After the Philadelphia match, McCarty shared an idea he has for the league.