In three games the past eight days - two draws and a loss - the Fire have seen their 2014 'playoff drive' shudder uneventfully to a halt. The corpse, long cooling, has now finally gone stone cold, and we're left with postmortem: Who stays? Who goes? Who to build on? Who to cut loose?
To me, the most striking statistics this week was the following group of stat lines:
- Logan Pause, 3 appearances, 3 starts, 270 minutes played; Benji Joya, 0 appearances, 0 starts, 0 minutes played; Chris Ritter, 0 appearances, 0 starts, 0 minutes played, and
- Gonzalo Segares, 2 appearances, 2 starts, 170 minutes played; Greg Cochrane, 0 appearances, 0 starts, 0 minutes played.
Using MLS' own 24-year-old cutoff for young players, the Fire have five young players on the roster - Harry Shipp, Grant Ward, Joya, Ritter and Cochrane. Of those five, only two saw minutes during a taxing three-game week that included two road games. The lineups were far from static - captain Jeff Larentowicz was shuffled from the back line to a double pivot in deep midfield and back again, for instance - but nowhere in those variations did anyone younger than 29 play a moment in the center of midfield, or did the putative backup at left back get a single minute on the field.
There are many possible explanations for this happenstance. Perhaps Pause has been very sharp in practice, and head coach Frank Yallop wanted to send a message about playing time being available based upon performance in practice. Maybe all the kids have small, niggling injuries that have gone unreported. Maybe someone hypnotized the coaching staff into thinking "a snowball's chance in hell" means "a pretty solid possibility," and they started all older guys for what they hoped to be a playoff stretch run.
Whatever the case, those explanations will not hold water now. The season is over. Its corpse has cooled. We're into post-mortem. And it's time to play the kids.
Why does this matter?
The Fire have, over the last several years, quietly invested heavily in their academy program, and it's starting to show results. Meanwhile, their investment in actual first-team players has not been as successful. If we're going to do this on the cheap - if we're going to shop in the international soccer equivalent of the odds n' ends bin, looking for guys who are out of contract or whose injury history induces a cringe - then we're going to need to seriously develop talent from the academy.
The old MLS where one could build the core of a competitive team from the SuperDraft is already in the trashcan of history; the league is twice the size it was when that strategy was last viable (say, maybe 10 years ago). There's talent to be had from the NCAA, but not enough year after year to stock a championship-caliber team.
But 'talent from the academy' makes it sound much simpler than it actually is. A young man like Collin Fernandez - recently signed by the Fire first team at 17 from the academy - has a huge number of options for pursuing a professional career in futbol. Fernandez' reputation in the soccersphere has skyrocketed after playing well for several iterations of the USA's youth national teams. Before signing with the big club, he was not locked into MLS at all; if Ajax or Dortmund or one of the literally hundreds of European clubs who scouts youth tournaments had offered him big money, he could've taken it, here at the end of thousands of hours of training, and left without CF97 receiving a penny of compensation. Or he could've gone to college, ignored the Fire's entreaties, and gone into the draft.
For top-end talent - the kind the Men in Red are going to need to compete against franchises like Seattle and Los Angeles, teams with big money to spend on acknowledged superior talent - the competition is fierce. The biggest bargaining chip a cheaper club has to offer young players is playing time. Sure, it's nice to say 'you can see your family!,' but ambitious players want to stretch themselves. They want to grow into greatness. And, at a certain point, that growth only takes place when they're on the field. Practice is important, but playing in games is where the rubber meets the road.
The whole academy's watching
All of which is to say that Fernandez is merely the thin end of the wedge for the Fire academy, or should be. Thing is, none of the younger guys has any legal commitment to CF97. If we continue our rather shoddy reputation of jerking young players around, it's not hard to imagine some of that precious, cap-protected talent just wandering away to play elsewhere.
For example, how will Cam Lindley - currently rated a top-10 talent in his age group, and ticketed to play college soccer at North Carolina - view a contract offer from the Fire after watching what Benji Joya's been through? They're similar box-to-box players, and they're both in the USA age-group teams. How can Lindley not take Joya's stop-start year with CF97 into consideration? All he needs to do to shake the Fire is turn down a Homegrown deal and wait.
Given Joya's experience, who could blame him? Benji looked fantastic in preseason, playing a box-to-box role in a compact 4-1-4-1 with panache. The team quickly lost faith in that shape, though, and Joya was given a short leash as a central midfielder, shuffled instead to the outside. Unfortunately, Joya's game is ill-suited for use as a winger, and so he crashed back to the bench, where he's stayed ... for ... months. The captain of the US U-20 team, recently named to a U-23 national team roster, has played exactly six (6) minutes since his last start on June 7.
Six minutes in four months is not enough. Rest assured the academy kids are watching - if we're going to bury young players, then they'll just go somewhere they feel likely to be valued more highly.
This season's done, finally, without question. We've given the greybeards a farewell tour. Now it's time to give the kids a chance to show us something. The long-term cost of not doing so could be very high indeed.