Fire Homegrown player Collin Fernandez building toward 2016


Fire Homegrown player Collin Fernandez building toward 2016

The growing pains commonly associated with being a first-year player in MLS hit different people in different ways. From the expectations placed on high-profile Designated Players upon their arrival in the United States to the anticipation surrounding young starlets, measuring up can be a daunting task.  

For Fire Homegrown midfielder Collin Fernandez and a rookie campaign that involved the Downers Grove, Ill. native juggling the responsibility of winding up his senior year of high school and attending training sessions at Toyota Park, going through the maturation process in 2015 could give rise to a more rewarding 2016.

Before the Fire open the regular season next March, Fernandez will have already turned 19 and likely experienced his second preseason. Fernandez's only first-team minutes in 2015 came in February in a scoreless draw with Norwich City, and in his MLS debut in a 3-1 loss to Columbus Crew SC five months later. He was lent to USL's Louisville City FC, where he saw action in four matches, but was frequently recalled to the Fire to help supplement numbers in practice or on the bench, where he was placed six times between late March and mid-August.

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“Collin’s done well," Fire interim coach Brian Bliss told reporters earlier this week. "Unfortunately, it’s tough for an 18-year-old kid to get onto the field, and there’s not many other MLS teams putting their young 17, 18, 19-year-olds onto the field week-in and week-out. Collin’s biggest stumbling block will be this first season, 2015, on the mental side."

A virtual ever-present in the Fire's Player Development system - he joined the Under-14 Academy at the age of 13 and has represented the club at the U-16 and U-18 levels - Fernandez has also received U.S. international call-ups since 2011 when he was selected to the roster for the U-14's trip to Guadalajara, Mexico. He then spent a semester at the U-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla., and has been named to numerous U-18 and U-20 squads since, most recently accompanying the latter in the Four Nations Tournament in Germany.

“It’s cool to go see and play in different parts of the world," Fernandez said. "Playing in those games grants more experience, and as a young player that’s all I need right now.” 

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With the regular season drawing to a close on Oct. 25, Fernandez's admirable work ethic has clearly caught the eye of the Fire technical staff, most notably Bliss, who isn't completely shunning the idea of giving Fernandez and other youngsters a window of opportunity to impress.

Come next season, though, one year's difference could do wonders for Fernandez in the way coaches and teammates perceive him.     

"I’ve had two meetings with him already about preparing himself for next year and being a year older, and he won’t be looked upon as a rookie or an 18-year-old," Bliss said. "Even though the chronological age will say he’s 19, it’s looked upon far differently from his teammates and from a coach. He does well when he goes into the U-19s/U-20s, so we’re thinking positively about his projection and where his career is going.”

Added Fernandez: “It’s all been a learning experience. I’m trying to take as much as I can from it.” 

Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason


Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason

Coach Veljko Paunovic still went with a second-choice lineup to start the Fire's preseason match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Wednesday, but the second half featured the first preseason action for Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Schweinsteiger came on for the second half, along with Nemanja Nikolic, Johan Kappelhof and a few other Fire regulars. The German sat out the first four preseason games, but looked sharp in his 45 minutes.

One of the highlights was this smooth move between two defenders:

Schweinsteiger also had an impressive switch pass to set up a shot for second-round pick Diego Campos in the final minutes of the game. Campos drilled the shot on target, but was unable to beat the goalkeeper.

The team did not say Schweinsteiger was injured despite the repeated absences in matches. The Fire have dealt with injuries to Matt Polster, Luis Solignac, Daniel Johnson and rookie Grant Lillard this preseason. None of those four, along with Dax McCarty, played in the 0-0 draw.

The Fire next play Saturday at Orlando in a final match in Florida before returning to Chicago. The Fire also play Tulsa, the team's USL affiliate, at Toyota Park on March 3 before taking on Sporting Kansas City in the season opener on March 10.

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.