Fire

How Nelson Rodriguez views the Fire's player development

How Nelson Rodriguez views the Fire's player development

Player development is one of the evergreen topics in American soccer.

Participation numbers and interest in the sport are not problems, but talent at the top level still lags behind the top countries in the world. Therefore, for several years, a missing link has been player development.

Chicago Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez has shaken a few things up at the club in that regard. During Rodriguez’s tenure, which is still less than two years old, he has hired a new academy director (Cedric Cattenoy), changed USL affiliates (St. Louis to Tulsa) and seen the club lose its PDL team.

Rodriguez addressed each topic when talking with reporters on Tuesday.

Rodriguez began the hour-long Q&A session by mentioning the Fire Juniors program as a feeder system into the academy and highlighting the fact that seven academy players have been called into national team camps this year. He name-dropped 16-year-old Nicholas Slonina, an Addison product who was with U.S. Soccer’s residency program in Bradenton, Fla.

“I think as we look at the academy right now, we see at our younger age levels, we feel we have at least a half dozen very promising players,” Rodriguez said. “Now they have to go through puberty, they have to continue to develop, but at the moment… I feel that our younger age groups have some really talented players.”

Mauricio Pineda, a homegrown prospect who completed his freshman season at North Carolina in the fall, is currently training with the Fire. Coach Veljko Paunovic stayed after training on Tuesday to work more with Pineda. Pineda is one of a few Fire prospects who could sign next winter, but Rodriguez said not to expect any to sign before then.

“Our approach to signing homegrown guys is one where we put a lot of responsibility on the family,” Rodriguez said. “What do they want? What might they prefer? I also believe that there are a lot of college soccer environments that are very, very good and that guys can still get better in college. I know that’s counter to just about what everyone else thinks.

“We’ve got a fair number of players at Indiana University and I think coach Todd Yeagley and his staff do a great job there. I think whenever those young men are ready to come out and if we can reach agreement, they’ll be well prepared for us. Whether that’s early or after their senior year.”

Defenders Grant Lillard and Andrew Gutman are two Fire prospects at Indiana. Lillard is heading into his senior year in the fall while Gutman will be a junior.

Rodriguez also referenced North Carolina and Michigan State as schools where the Fire have prospects. In addition to Pineda, Cameron Lindley also completed his freshman year at UNC and received a number of honors and awards from his first college season. At Michigan State, Ryan Sierakowski is a Fire academy product who was first-team All-Big Ten as a sophomore after scoring nine goals and tallying five assists.

In past years, some of these prospects would play for the Fire’s PDL (Premier Development League) team. The PDL serves as a summer league for college players. Last year, then Fire assistant coach Logan Pause led that group and Lillard, Gutman, Pineda and Lindley were on that team. The Fire do not have a PDL team this year.

“My opinion, the PDL system was not conducive to good player development,” Rodriguez said. “There were too many games in too short of a period, not enough training, not enough rest. Very similar to truncated college seasons.”

He doesn’t think there is a missing link in the Fire’s player development pipeline now without a PDL team.

“I’m not worried that there’s a gap because the reality is guys like Mauricio Pineda and other guys we invite, if they accept, can train with our first team in the summer,” Rodriguez said. “Now the gap would be games, but our staff is good about intrasquad and if we could find games for them through arranging them with an outside opponent, we would. A few more games would help, but I’ll sacrifice that for those players having an experience with Juninho and Dax (McCarty) and Nemanja (Nikolic) and Basti (Schweinsteiger) and Arturo (Alvarez) and Pauno. I think that’s a better learning environment for them.”

[RELATED: Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez preaches modesty amid team's positive start]

The next step in the pipeline is the USL. The minor professional league has become more entwined with MLS as a development tool for young pros in the past few years.

Last year, the Fire were affiliated with Saint Louis FC, but Rodriguez had said things didn’t go as they hoped. This year, he said positive things about new affiliate Tulsa and coach David Vaudreuil while staying firm in his belief that the Fire don’t need to control its own USL team.

Joey Calistri made 14 appearances with the Fire last year as a rookie and scored a goal. This season he is on loan with Tulsa, where he has played in all eight matches, started seven and has four goals and an assist. Collin Fernandez and Matej Dekovic have also been with Tulsa all season.

“I think things with Tulsa have been fantastic,” Rodriguez said. “Our guys are having good experiences. Joey Calistri is really doing well, he is really playing well… I think this extended playing time has been very good for him. 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.

“Collin Fernandez has also benefitted. The last couple weeks he’s been in and out with still a bit of a hamstring strain, but what’s been good about Tulsa is they saw, and David Vaudreuil saw, Collin in a way that we didn’t so he’s played more as an eight (box-to-box midfielder), which is something that we hadn’t considered, and he’s done well. So it’s made us rethink how we look at Collin, so that’s been good. Matej Dekovic has a little bit of a back flair up, so he hasn’t played as many minutes.”

Rodriguez added that rookies Brandt Bronico and Stefan Cleveland will head to Tulsa after the Fire’s game against Dallas on Thursday for a short-term loan.

“All it’s done is reaffirm that if you have a good partner and have open dialogue, you don’t need your own USL team,” Rodriguez said. “We feel really good about what’s happening with the development of the players that we’ve sent there.”

Even a win showed how injuries could derail Fire's playoff run

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USA TODAY

Even a win showed how injuries could derail Fire's playoff run

Major League Soccer has earned a reputation as a league of very fine margins.

The league’s desired goal of parity means only a couple very good or very bad teams are notably better or worse than most of the pack. A couple key injuries leave a big mark on a team.

When the Fire lost six of seven matches after the Gold Cup break injuries were an easy explanation for the team’s slump. Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster were both in the middle of breakout seasons and their absences coincided with the dropoff in results. They returned and the team has showed improvement in a 4-1-2 stretch since the skid ended.

The recent run has secured a playoff berth, but a new group of injuries have popped up at similar times and could doom the Fire’s chances of doing any damage in the playoffs. In Sunday’s 3-2 win against Philadelphia, a team already eliminated from playoff contention and which has just one win on the road all season, the Fire were without Bastian Schweinsteiger, Juninho and Michael de Leeuw. David Accam, who has been nursing a hip injury, came off the bench.

Even in victory, the Fire had to come from behind and showed a less than stellar performance with plenty on the line. Playoff seeding is incredibly tight heading into the final weekend, with the Fire having the chance to finish anywhere from second to fifth.

The Fire led in the third minute but trailed 10 minutes later, something that irked coach Veljko Paunovic.

“After the third minute we actually thought that the game for us was over and that’s unacceptable,” Paunovic said. “We cannot ever again have that performance or that mindset.”

Paunovic did praise the team’s character to find a way to turn it on and get the win.

“We are kind of happy to see that we are capable to react that way, to go basically from zero to 10 in just 15 minutes of the halftime break,” Paunovic said.

However, the need to turn it on like that is not a good sign for the playoffs when the opponents will be better than Philadelphia. One of the reasons for the improved play was the introduction of David Accam into the match after halftime. Accam was fouled in the box to earn the penalty kick that Nemanja Nikolic scored to tie the match.

[RELATED: With MLS scoring title nearly locked up, Nemanja Nikolic views it as 'work of one year’]

The Ghanaian has been nursing a hip injury for weeks and it has limited his playing time. This was the third straight match he has not started. When asked if not starting Accam was about his injury or resting him for the playoffs, Paunovic said, “It’s a little bit of everything.”

“I felt good today on the field,” Accam said. “I haven’t played in a long time so today I felt good and I think I’m ready to help this team.”

Accam described the injury as a nerve injury. He said the plan was for him to play 30 minutes, but Paunovic told him to get ready earlier because the team might need him.

“Sometimes I just wake up and I don’t know,” Accam said. “It’s really painful. Other times it feels so good. The last two or three weeks it feels really, really painful.”

This was also the first match Michael de Leeuw, the team’s leader in assists, missed due to his torn ACL suffered last match against New York City FC. Juninho missed his fifth straight match with a knee injury and his status for the playoffs remains unclear. Bastian Schweinsteiger is nursing a thigh injury and while he is expected to be available for the postseason, his fitness will be in question. Joao Meira went down early in Sunday’s match and finished the match, but was walking with a significant limp in the locker room after the game.

This all adds up to plenty question marks heading into the playoffs for the Fire. Who knows what the team will look like when the postseason rolls around.

With MLS scoring title nearly locked up, Nemanja Nikolic views it as 'work of one year'

With MLS scoring title nearly locked up, Nemanja Nikolic views it as 'work of one year'

Nemanja Nikolic has won scoring titles before in his career so his place at the top of the Major League Soccer goal-scoring list is not an unfamiliar place for him.

Nikolic, who joined the Fire this offseason, won the scoring title three times in the Hungarian league and did so in his last full season in the Polish Ekstraklasa before leaving for the Fire. By scoring a hat trick in Sunday’s 3-2 win against Philadelphia, Nikolic put himself in prime position to win the Golden Boot in his first year in MLS.

Nikolic scored in the third minute, finishing off a long ball from Brandon Vincent that gave him a breakaway, buried a penalty kick in the second half to tie the match and scored the game-winner in the 78th minute on an impressive first-touch finish. Nikolic now has 24 goals on the season. The nearest competitors in the scoring title race, Diego Valeri (21) and David Villa (20), would need a hat trick of their own just to get back in the race with one weekend left in the regular season.

“I think it’s important for every striker to win this,” Nikolic said of the scoring title. “This is our job. We need to do this every week. The season is really long so up and down situations you will have always. The important thing is how you will believe in these things and how you will come out from the bad momentum and also how you will train when you have good momentum.”

Nikolic’s third goal was huge beyond getting Nikolic his first hat trick of the season. The win moved the Fire up to third in the Eastern Conference standings while a draw would have dropped the team to fifth. A fifth-place finish means going on the road in the first-round so securing at least a top four spot is a big difference.

When he scored the third goal and again when he was subbed out of the match in added time, the crowd chanted “NIKO!”

“I feel really good, not just about hat trick, about the victory,” Nikolic said. “It was really important for us. The first half was not that great, but I think we showed attitude. We showed personality, how we need to play in second half. We were not afraid.”


During the week leading up to the Philadelphia match, Nikolic talked up how many quality strikers were deserving of winning the scoring title. When asked if any of his teammates had joked about the scoring race with him, Nikolic responded very seriously about what it means.

"I think it’s no joke," he said. "I think it’s work of one year."

Vincent assisted on both of Nikolic’s goals from open play.

“Unbelievable accomplishment for him,” Vincent said of Nikolic likely winning the Golden Boot. “He deserves every bit of it. He’s been clinical on the chances he’s gotten. He probably could have had even more goals, honestly. He’s a striker and he deserves that for sure.”