The growing pains commonly associated with being a first-year player in MLS hit different people in different ways. From the expectations placed on high-profile Designated Players upon their arrival in the United States to the anticipation surrounding young starlets, measuring up can be a daunting task.
For Fire Homegrown midfielder Collin Fernandez and a rookie campaign that involved the Downers Grove, Ill. native juggling the responsibility of winding up his senior year of high school and attending training sessions at Toyota Park, going through the maturation process in 2015 could give rise to a more rewarding 2016.
Before the Fire open the regular season next March, Fernandez will have already turned 19 and likely experienced his second preseason. Fernandez's only first-team minutes in 2015 came in February in a scoreless draw with Norwich City, and in his MLS debut in a 3-1 loss to Columbus Crew SC five months later. He was lent to USL's Louisville City FC, where he saw action in four matches, but was frequently recalled to the Fire to help supplement numbers in practice or on the bench, where he was placed six times between late March and mid-August.
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“Collin’s done well," Fire interim coach Brian Bliss told reporters earlier this week. "Unfortunately, it’s tough for an 18-year-old kid to get onto the field, and there’s not many other MLS teams putting their young 17, 18, 19-year-olds onto the field week-in and week-out. Collin’s biggest stumbling block will be this first season, 2015, on the mental side."
A virtual ever-present in the Fire's Player Development system - he joined the Under-14 Academy at the age of 13 and has represented the club at the U-16 and U-18 levels - Fernandez has also received U.S. international call-ups since 2011 when he was selected to the roster for the U-14's trip to Guadalajara, Mexico. He then spent a semester at the U-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla., and has been named to numerous U-18 and U-20 squads since, most recently accompanying the latter in the Four Nations Tournament in Germany.
“It’s cool to go see and play in different parts of the world," Fernandez said. "Playing in those games grants more experience, and as a young player that’s all I need right now.”
With the regular season drawing to a close on Oct. 25, Fernandez's admirable work ethic has clearly caught the eye of the Fire technical staff, most notably Bliss, who isn't completely shunning the idea of giving Fernandez and other youngsters a window of opportunity to impress.
Come next season, though, one year's difference could do wonders for Fernandez in the way coaches and teammates perceive him.
"I’ve had two meetings with him already about preparing himself for next year and being a year older, and he won’t be looked upon as a rookie or an 18-year-old," Bliss said. "Even though the chronological age will say he’s 19, it’s looked upon far differently from his teammates and from a coach. He does well when he goes into the U-19s/U-20s, so we’re thinking positively about his projection and where his career is going.”
Added Fernandez: “It’s all been a learning experience. I’m trying to take as much as I can from it.”