Collin Fernandez

Fire homegrown player Collin Fernandez makes USL top prospect list

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USA TODAY

Fire homegrown player Collin Fernandez makes USL top prospect list

As Major League Soccer and the United Soccer League have partnered, the USL has become a more viable league for player development.

Each year the USL showcases some of the young talent in its league with the USL 20 Under 20 series posted to the league’s website, rankings the top 20 USL players who are 20 years old or younger. It’s the closest thing to MLS prospect rankings you’ll see.

This year, Fire homegrown midfielder Collin Fernandez made the list at No. 18. Fernandez has been playing on loan with the Tulsa Roughnecks this season and is getting positive reviews for his play.

The scouting report on his 20 Under 20 bio, which came via TopDrawerSoccer.com, called this a breakthrough season for Fernandez:

Deployed in a deeper midfield role instead of an attacking midfield spot, Fernandez has been able to adjust to the USL and let his passing ability shine. Fernandez is in the top five for Tulsa’s passes and passing percentage, as the move deeper in the lineup allows him to get on the ball and help his side transition from attack to defense. While he’s more of a slight build, the experience this season has shown that he can stamp his authority against bigger, older players.

Fernandez, 20, struggled to get playing time in his first two years of professional soccer. In 2015 and 2016 he made just three combined appearances that totaled 14 minutes. Fernandez was on loan with Saint Louis FC, another USL team, for much of 2016, but injuries and time with Peru’s under-20 national team prevented him from being available to St. Louis on a consistent basis.

This year, Fernandez has made 13 starts and another appearance off the bench for 1,134 minutes played. He has a goal and a pair of assists.

“What’s been good about Tulsa is they saw and (coach) David Vaudreuil saw Collin in a way that we didn’t so he’s played more as an eight, which is something that we hadn’t considered, and he’s done well,” Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez said in May. “So it’s made us rethink how we look at Collin, so that’s been good.”

Another player the Fire had on loan in Tulsa was Joey Calistri. Calistri was recalled to the Fire this week and had good things to say about Fernandez’s play.

“He’s been playing really well,” Calistri said. “He’s been playing holding mid for us and he did a great job. He’s up and down. He can cover a lot of ground. He’s like a little pitbull out there. He’s a good player. He’s good in the middle, a lot of energy out there and he definitely helped Tulsa do very well.”

Fernandez had an impressive assist in a game on July 13:

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.”

Fire announce loans of three players to USL affiliate Tulsa

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USA TODAY

Fire announce loans of three players to USL affiliate Tulsa

The Chicago Fire changed USL affiliates from St. Louis to Tulsa in the offseason and officially announced on Monday the first three Fire players to go on loan to Tulsa.

Two homegrown players and a rookie will head to the Tulsa Roughnecks. Third-year midfielder Collin Fernandez, second-year midfielder Joey Calistri and rookie defender Matej Dekovic will head to Oklahoma.

All three players spent time with Tulsa in the preseason, including in a match Saturday against Saint Louis FC, the Fire's previous affiliate. Fernandez played 75 minutes, Calistri played 65 minutes and Dekovic entered as a substitute in the 78th minute.

Fernandez's loan comes after the 20-year-old has made just three MLS appearances for a total of 14 minutes in his first two seasons with the Fire. General manager Nelson Rodriguez has talked about the importance of getting Fernandez consistent playing time at any level after two years mixed with injuries, time spent with the under-20 Peruvian national team and USL loans. Fernandez was on loan in St. Louis for part of last season.

While Fernandez has struggled to earn playing time as a pro, Calistri's loan move was a bit of a surprise as it surfaced that he would be headed to Tulsa. Calistri made two starts in MLS play and had 12 more off the bench for a total of 348 minutes played as a rookie and scored against Colorado on June 18. He also played 40 minutes in three sub appearances in the U.S. Open Cup.

Dekovic was the Fire's fourth round pick in the draft. The Croatian product of the University of Charlotte won't count as an international player on the Fire's roster as long as he is on loan. With John Goossens on the disabled list, the Fire currently have seven international players with one more slot available.

The Roughnecks' season begins against Colorado Springs on March 25.