With a preseason game completed, Chicago Fire coach Veljko Paunovic has a bit more to say about his team.
During his weekly conference call with media on Monday, Paunovic talked about how impressed he has been with some of the team's younger players, getting Sean Johnson, Matt Polster and Brandon Vincent into camp from the national team and some early impressions from Saturday's 3-0 win against the University of South Florida.
"We are very happy so far with how the team is performing and improving and obviously we know we have to still improve our form for the next couple of weeks to prepare well for the long season," Paunovic said.
The Fire are filled with youth, with 12 players on the preseason roster who are first or second-year professionals. Veteran additions like Michael Harrington and Nick LaBrocca as well as returning veterans like Eric Gehrig and Razvan Cocis almost have dual roles on the squad to help the younger players integrate into the team.
"Our veterans are helping a lot to our youngsters, to integrate and to catch the level that they have because we believe players like Mauricio [Pineda], Collin [Fernandez], Kingsley [Bryce], [Patrick] Doody and others are the future of our team," Paunovic said. “I was surprised with the group of youngsters. This is the first time that they really are challenged to work with senior players and professional players at a professional level. I’m very, very surprised with the level and the commitment and as I said before they are proving themselves to be reliable in the future of our team.”
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One player specifically who impressed Paunovic has been Fire Academy player Mauricio Pineda. Pineda, who is 18 years old, signed his letter of intent to play collegiately for North Carolina while at the Fire's training camp in Tampa. Pineda has been training with the first team throughout the preseason and even started Saturday's match against USF. Already a youth national team prospect, Pineda is emerging as a player who could become a homegrown signing for the Fire in the near future. Paunovic said it's too early to say if Pineda could actually remain with the first team and sign at the end of the preseason, but he spoke highly of the defender.
"I would say we are very happy with what we expected that he can do on the next level, the professional level," Paunovic said. "He is proving that. He, Collin and other guys that I mentioned before, this is what gives us security that we have. Now obviously they have to work still."
A couple other players which Paunovic had an eye on against USF were Joey Calistri and Vincent Keller. Keller was the only Fire player to play the whole match, playing center back in the first half and right back in the second half. Calistri, a forward throughout his Fire Academy and Northwestern career, played right back in the first half and impressed his new coach.
“The technical staff, we had a discussion about where he can fit the best for our squad," Paunovic said of Calistri. "We believe that obviously trying him in that position in the session during the preseason, he proved that he can play there. That’s why he played there because we want to find the best position for him and obviously we have to see that in a game. That’s why we played him in that position and we were very happy with his performance.”
Monday marks the first day of training for Johnson, Polster and Vincent. Paunovic talked about Vincent's debut performance for the U.S. national team on Friday.
“We were very happy to see him play the other day," Paunovic said. "He deserves it because I’m sure he did great at the camp so that’s how and that’s why you earn the confidence of the coach. This is how all our youngsters have to understand how to do it. What we are expecting from him is the same thing: being a humble and hard-working guy and bring the talent that he will provide us. We expect him to be a good prospect not only for us, which is obvious, but for the Olympic national team and even for the senior team.”
As for the foreign transfers who have yet to join camp, Joao Meira, Johan Kappelhof and Rodrigo Ramos, Paunovic said Meira has his visa and should join the team in the next couple days. Kappelhof and Ramos are still waiting for their visas. Paunovic also clarified how the Fire discovered Ramos. The 20-year-old Brazilian didn't play much at the U-20 World Cup which Paunovic coached Serbia in, but they scouted him on video from his nine appearances with Coritiba.
“He did not play too much at the World Cup," Paunovic said. "The fact that he was a part of that great team was very important for us. When he was offered on loan to us, we started scouting him. I saw all the nine games that played for Coritiba this past season.
"What I saw and what the technical staff saw was that he is a fast player, he is good on the ball, he has that Brazilian attacking mentality and attitude so that’s what we are looking for. Obviously he is good defensively, but at the same time he attacks very well after he recovers.”
The Fire continue the preseason with a 3 p.m. CT kickoff against the Philadelphia Union on Thursday.