When Joey Calistri subbed on for Arturo Alvarez in the 81st minute of the Chicago Fire's 3-2 loss at Toronto on Sunday it was the first time the rookie homegrown player had seen the field in over a month.
The nine-minute appearance was also more time than he'd seen in a league game in July, August, September and October combined. Calistri played 10 of the Fire's first 13 league matches totaling 333 minutes. In the final 21 matches of the year he made four appearances totaling 15 minutes.
Because Calistri's substitution was the third and final sub for the Fire, it also signified that fellow homegrown players Patrick Doody and Drew Conner would not play in 2016. Both made the list of available substitutes in Toronto, but did not get the call to sub into the match.
This offseason the Fire got younger with first-round draft picks Brandon Vincent (22 years old) and Jonathan Campbell (23), second-rounder Alex Morrell (22), homegrowns Calistri and Conner (both 22) and international players Rodrigo Ramos (21), Khaly Thiam (22) and David Arshakyan (22) joining the team. Some of the players like Vincent and Campbell were major contributors in 2016 and could be a significant part of the team in the future. Meanwhile, the Fire's four homegrown players, 19-year-old second-year pro Collin Fernandez in addition to Calistri, Conner and Doody, combined for two starts. Fernandez made two substitute appearances for a total of eight minutes.
Campbell played in 33 of the Fire’s 34 matches, starting 30 of them at center back, and was in the early running for Rookie of the Year before Jordan Morris, Keegan Rosenberry and Jack Harrison solidfied themselves as the top three in that race. Vincent finished with 24 starts and 26 appearances at left back and was named to the MLS All-Star team. Those two, along with Johan Kappelhof, could potentially form the core of the team’s defense next year.
Another young defender, Ramos, showed flashes of being a dangerous attacking right back and made 16 starts. However, the Brazilian seemed to fall out of favor with Paunovic in the final two months of the season and the Fire will have to pick up the option on his loan to make him a permanent member of the team.
A pair of younger international players, Arshakyan and Thiam, saw semi-regular playing time down the stretch after joining during the season, but neither made a big impression. Thiam, like Ramos, joined on loan so his future remains up in the air. Arshakyan joined the team in August and both Arshakyan and Paunovic have said he is still settling in.
General manager Nelson Rodriguez has talked about trying to form a core of players to build around for years to come. Campbell and Vincent showed the potential to be valuable parts of such a core, but for many of the Fire's younger players, 2016 was a season of missed, or a lack of, opportunities.