There are a lot of young players on the Chicago Fire and only a few of them can get on the field right now.
The Fire have five rookies and four second-year pros, if you count 20-year-old Brazilian Rodrigo Ramos in the second-year group. Out of those nine players, Matt Polster enteredhe season as an established starter while Ramos and rookie Jonathan Campbell appear to have solidified themselves as starters for now.
Rookie Brandon Vincent started the first three matches, but hasn't played since. Joey Calistri and Alex Morrell, both rookies, have been able to earn late substitute roles on multiple occasions, but no starts. Rookie Drew Conner and second-year players Patrick Doody and Collin Fernandez haven't played at all although Doody and Conner are on loan with Saint Louis FC.
Just looking at that group, it shows how difficult is has been for the younger players on the team to earn regular minutes. When asked about Calistri specifically earlier this week, coach Veljko Paunovic spoke about the importance of giving playing time to young players.
"For him I think it’s important that he can go through this process of developing and getting minutes in the league, (for that) to go smoothly," Paunovic said. "We are working on that and as soon as he is ready and as soon as we believe he can help the team on the field we will not have any issue to make him play.
"We also have a lot of young, talented players that we want to mold them. We also know for the young players it is very important to have minutes and where we can’t give them those minutes we will look for opportunities to loan those young players so they can get either with our affiliate or with another club in the league where we can give them for a short-term loan. This is our approach for Calistri and all other young players that we have on the squad that are not having enough minutes. We believe that is important for young players."
Paunovic came to the Fire after coaching the Serbian U-20 team, which gives him youth development coaching experience. When he talks about getting young players minutes, he knows it's important.
Calistri subbed in after the 80th minute in each of the team's first three matches, but hasn't played since. With a stretch of four games in 11 days coming up in May, squad rotation will be necessary, but Paunovic said he doesn't expect Calistri's role to change much during that period.
"(Paunovic) just keeps preaching work ethic and hard work and keep working on my finishing, my killer instinct," Calistri said. "That’s stuff in training and when I get into a scrimmage that I try to focus on."
The former Northwestern forward is still learning the professional game and is trying to take advantage of his opportunities as they come, even if they are for less than 10 minutes at a time.
"It’s a great learning experience for me. I think that’s probably the most important part is that I’m learning a lot from all the guys and Pauno and the staff," Calistri said. "For me it’s all about work rate and energy and trying to bring a little spark. If I’m coming in in the 80th, 85th minute, most of the guys are going to be pretty tired. Just trying to run at some guys, get in behind, make it tough for the guys who have been out there."