Young players finding a place with Chicago Fire
The trend in the Chicago Fire's most recent signings was unmistakable.
The players were young. Very young, really, by American professional athletics standards. And they were primarily suburban, having grown up in the Fire academy.
One more thing, said Fire sporting director Georg Heitz. They were ready.
The 2020 Fire roster sports a club-record 11 homegrown players, tied for second in MLS with Real Salt Lake (FC Dallas has 12). The Fire has signed 20 homegrown players, starting with Victor Pineda in 2010, so more than half are still with the team.
"No, I don't think that it's a risk," said Heitz, who was hired in December. "We have enough players who can play and I think also these boys, they could play. Maybe not all of them at the same time. But if you play in a team that works as a team, I think you can really make them play."
Because the Fire has turned to its academy to fill so much of its roster, the average age of the 31 first-team players is a shade under 24.
Don't expect a team video of players knocking back Malort shots. The Fire has far more teenagers than 30-somethings. Jonathan Bornstein, Micheal Azira and C.J. Sapong are the only field players in their 30s with the club in 2020.
Even as the Fire touts its move back to Soldier Field from Southwest suburban Bridgeview's SeatGeek Stadium as a way to appeal to fans in the city, the club still gets most of its homegrown players from the suburbs. Eighteen-year-old Andre Reynolds II, signed in January 2019, remains the player from Chicago to sign a homegrown contract with the Fire.
Starting with the Dec. 19 signing of Nicholas Slonina, 19, of Addison, the Fire has added seven homegrown players to the first-team roster. Mauricio Pineda, 22, of Bolingbrook is the veteran of new homegrowns, having played four seasons at the University of North Carolina.
Brian Gutierrez, 16, of Bridgeview; Addison's Javier Casas, 16; Naperville's Alex Monis, 17; Naperville's Chris Brady, 16; and Elkhart, Indiana, resident Allan Rodriguez, 15; all signed in March.
"We cannot emphasize enough it's got nothing to do with marketing," Heitz said. "It's really these decisions were taken due to the fact that they are good players."
Slonina's brother Gabriel, now 15, signed just more than a year ago. Like Brady, the younger Slonina is a goalkeeper.
Expect 21-year-old Djordje Mihailovic, in his fourth MLS season, to get the most playing time of the homegrowns when the season resumes following the COVID-19 pandemic. Mauricio Pineda also looks like he could stick with the first team, though he probably will be a reserve.
The others will need to develop further and will continue to practice with the first team but play primarily for the Fire academy. They also could be loaned out to Forward Madison, the Fire's USL affiliate in Wisconsin.
"I always say the last step is the most difficult one," Heitz said, emphasizing patience. "We should not forget we should not put too much pressure on the boys, and they are still boys."