Collin Fernandez is the youngest player on the Chicago Fire and has been since he signed his first professional contract as a homegrown player in Aug. 28, 2014, as a 17-year-old.
Now 19, Fernandez is still fighting to find a regular place with the Fire, but has seen extra opportunities with the Peru Under-20 National Team. Fernandez has been with the U-20s for three camps this year and was called into another, but missed due to injury.
The midfielder from Downers Grove just returned to the Fire from one of those camps earlier this week.
“You get to play a lot of games against first division teams there,” Fernandez said. “It’s good experience for me to play in those games. I’m playing a lot and they like me there so it’s a good experience.”
Fernandez is eligible to play for Peru due to his family heritage, but was born in the U.S. and doesn’t speak Spanish fluently. He is able to communicate with a couple teammates who speak English.
Beyond a language barrier, Fernandez has also noticed some differences in the playing style there as opposed to in the States.
“Over there you keep the ball, you play,” Fernandez said. “It’s not always 100 miles an hour. Sometimes it’s a little slower, but that’s just how they play.”
Playing with the Peru U-20s when he can has been a big boost for Fernandez because he hasn’t seen as much playing time with the Fire as he would like. After making one substitute appearance for six minutes as a rookie in 2015, Fernandez has come off the bench twice this season for a total of eight minutes.
One of the reasons for the lack of playing time was a sprained ankle Fernandez suffered in the middle part of the season. He was in and out of training before finally deciding to shut things down for a while to fully recover.
Even with the injury and being absent at times to play with the Peru U-20s, playing 14 minutes in nearly two full seasons with the Fire is not what Fernandez had in mind when he signed.
“Obviously not my expectation,” Fernandez said. “It was much higher, but it is what it is and it’s part of the process. I have to respect that.
“It’s something that I’m disappointed in, but you just try to move forward. It’s just a learning thing. You can’t dwell on it because it’s only going to make it worse.”
Fernandez was able to see some time with the Fire’s USL affiliate, Saint Louis FC, late in the USL season. He played 110 minutes in three appearances. Fernandez started and played 64 minutes in the season finale on Sept. 24.
Fernandez last appeared for the Fire on May 11. The lack of playing time in a key point in Fernandez’s development is something general manager Nelson Rodriguez was asked about on Sept. 1 during a roundtable with reporters. Rodriguez explained that after a “very good preseason” he believed Fernandez would get more time with the first team, but injuries and time with the Peru U-20s interfered with sending Fernandez to St. Louis earlier in the season. He ultimately admitted the club needed to do more for Fernandez.
“We’re not satisfied with what we’ve done for Collin," Rodriguez said. "He has not in any negative way contributed to that, in part through injury, in part through other decisions that he took that he has a right to take. In the end, it’s not good enough. Not good enough for him, not good enough for us.
“He has not had the development that he needs in these critical ages.”
The lack of playing time has made improving his fitness a challenge. That has become one of his focal points.
“In this league you got to be able to run so that’s one of the main things I’ve been working on,” Fernandez said. “I’ve been able to play. It was good to play 90 minutes in Peru against Paraguay so that was a good experience. That was my first 90-minute game in a couple years so that was good for my fitness.”
The Fire’s season ends in less than two weeks, which means Fernandez will enter another period where minutes will be hard to come by.
However, Fernandez has a good chance to play with the Peru U-20s in U-20 World Cup Qualifying. The South American qualifying tournament takes place Jan. 13 to Feb. 5 in Ecuador, which means Fernandez could miss the start of the Fire’s preseason next year.
“The coach told me I’m in his thoughts for it,” Fernandez said. “I just have to keep performing well and do what I do.
“That’s going to be great for the team, great for individual players. It’s great exposure for everyone.”