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Baby Steps: Fire begin rebuild by signing Calistri, Conner to Homegrown deals

Roster boosted to 15 by signing two of the Big Ten's better seniors, giving proof of growing Academy-NCAA-first team pipeline

Today, for the first time, the Rodriguez/Paunovic front office signed players.
Today, for the first time, the Rodriguez/Paunovic front office signed players.

The Chicago Fire's rebuild for 2016 began its much-less-depressing building phase (taking over for the 'teardown') with the signing of academy products Joey Calistri and Drew Conner to Homegrown contracts. Terms, as is usual in a league obsessed with opacity, were not released. The signings are the 7th- and 8th-ever Homegrown players for the Fire.

There could be no disputing the Fire pedigree of the two Big Ten team captains. Calistri played on Fire Academy sides since 2010, and with the Fire's PDL team - coached by (now former) academy director Larry Sunderland - each of the previous four summers. He's also Northwestern's second-leading scorer and a former Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

Conner's time with the academy goes even further back, to 2008; he was a four-year starter for Wisconsin and the Fire PDL. An attacking midfielder, Drew captained the Badgers as a senior.

He also gets crunk.

Hot (Time) take

There's been a sort of hush around Toyota Park since the hiring of Veljko Paunovic as head coach - understandably, perhaps, as the primary news has been of firings and departures. The prospect of restocking a roster pruned to 13 -especially in the absence of much of a scouting apparatus - means that Nelson Rodriguez and Paunovic will have their fingerprints on this roster from day one.

The hope is, always, that we are now at the turning of the tide. The departure of Academy boss Larry Sunderland is a grave blow, but on today's evidence, he leaves a robust academy-to-NCAA-to CF97 pipeline in place.

Still, questions remain that have yet to be answered. To wit:

- How are the Fire dealing with the USL question? It's likely that one or both of Calistri and Conner - like Patrick Doody, Chris Ritter, Victor Pineda, Collin Fernandez and Kellen Gulley before them - will struggle for first-team minutes. How are players to develop without playing? The continued lack of (at the least) a stable development relationship with a USL side is a concern, if growing-our-own truly is a serious, long-term goal of the organization.

- Can the Fire sign their highest-touted prospects? Calistri and Conner are good, solid signings with some upside. Worst case, they're quality depth who will keep the pressure on in training.

But there are several prospects in the pipeline that are potentially on another level - here we're primarily talking about the soon-to-be Tarheels Cameron Lindley and Mauricio Pineda, potential national-team players who would unquestionably be Homegrowns ... if the Fire can sell them on their prospects with the club. Can Pauno and company replace Sunderland's outsized influence?

In short, it's not only us soccer nerds paying attention - it's the players and their families, too. Here's to hoping we're going to get good answers to these, and the myriad other questions around this club, sooner than later.