The Chicago Fire have a lot of young players on the roster and a few of them are already earning regular playing time, but none seem to have settled in as quickly as Jonathan Campbell.
The rookie has worked his way into a center back trio for the Fire and his coach is taking notice of the 22-year-old’s potential.
“I think Jonathan is doing well with his adaptation to the league,” Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said. “It only took two or three games. It’s amazing how intelligent and how well he is handling this first year as a rookie.
“I truly believe that he can be not only a very good player for Chicago Fire, which we all work on that, but also for the national team. I think that he has that capacity to become a great player for this country.”
Paunovic’s heavy praise comes with some numbers to back it up.
The Fire’s revamped defense was shredded for three goals in the first half of the season opener against New York City FC. Campbell came on at halftime of that match and has played every minute since. The Fire have given up two goals in the 225 minutes Campbell has been on the field.
As a center back Campbell wasn’t expecting to come on as a sub against NYCFC, which added a bit to the nerves of making his professional debut.
“I was nervous, but I was think nerves can be good,” Campbell said. “In that game I was ready to go in, but I wasn’t expecting to come in at halftime just as a center back. You only get three subs and you’re not really expecting to change things much in the back. That’s what we did and we changed formation.”
The formation change has stuck so far and part of the improvement in defense is simply down to the extra body. The Fire have played with five defenders since Campbell’s inclusion and Crew coach Gregg Berhalter said in his postgame press conference that the Fire defending in numbers made it tough for the Crew.
The shutout in that match was the Fire’s first since Aug. 2, 2015. The club had gone 15 matches without a shutout.
“I think we marked up well in the box and were a lot cleaner with our clearances,” Campbell said after the match. “We didn’t give them really many chances. The shots that they took were far out of the box so I think we did a good job with that.”
Campbell played a big part in limiting Crew forward Kei Kamara, a physical presence coming off a 22-goal season, as the central most of the three Fire center backs.
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That’s not to say Campbell is a finished product. He made a few errant passes against Columbus and was at least partially at fault for Cyle Larin’s goal in the match at Orlando. Campbell gave Larin too much space after a Fire turnover and although Campbell was able to recover and block Larin’s first attempt, the loose ball fell back to Larin for the goal.
It appears Paunovic and the Fire will put up with some rookie mistakes, especially if Paunovic believes so strongly in Campbell’s potential.