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.”

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

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USA TODAY

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

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USA TODAY

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.