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.”