Much like everything else in life, soccer is about timing and connections. The story about how the Chicago Fire ended up selecting Christian Pinzon from Cal State Fullerton is a perfect example.
Unlike the Fire’s other two picks in this year’s draft, Jackson Ragen from the University of Michigan and Mitch Guitar from the University of Wisconsin, Pinzon isn’t a local guy. But, a random midwestern connection ended up putting him on the Fire’s radar screen.
In February 2020, Pinzon’s Cal State Fullerton squad scrimmaged against Landon Donovan’s new USL Championship side, San Diego Loyal. Donovan’s assistant coach, Nate Miller, liked what he saw in Pinzon enough to call some old friends in Chicago. Miller had worked closely with the Fire’s football operations team when he was the head coach of the club’s 2019 USL affiliate, Lansing Ignite, and he suggested they take a look at Pinzon.
“He said ‘This guy, we played against him and he said there’s something different here,’” said Eddie Rock, the Fire’s Senior Director of Football Operations. “So, it was a connection like that that made us spend more time, scouting him, finding more video.”
The Fire ended up talking to other people about Pinzon, and they got a solid idea he could be someone who helps the team, long-term. This year was strange. Most NCAA conferences shifted men’s soccer from fall 2020 to spring 2021, meaning in-person scouting was impossible. But through video and interviews, Pinzon ended up on the Fire’s draft board. They ended up grabbing him with the 47th overall pick, but he’s not coming to Chicago right away. Like Ragen at Michigan, Pinzon will finish out his senior season this spring.
“With Pinzon, we feel he’s the type of winger that fits the way that Rapha (Wicky) wants to play, and the way we want to play as a team,” Rock said. “So maybe with another season in college we can have a look at him, potentially in the summer. Maybe he could be a player who will sign with us and go out on loan, or there might be other options for him in USL directly.”
The idea, Rock says, is maximizing every different avenue where the Fire can find players. With the SuperDraft, they weren’t looking to fill holes immediately. Instead, they were looking to plant seeds that might eventually help the first team.
“We’re trying to project where they will be 18 months from now,” Rock said.
Planning the Draft Board
Heading into draft day, the Fire had 78 players on their draft board. Scouts Borja de Matias and Matt Pearson did a lot of the heavy lifting forming the list.
“Borja went to the Kansas City combine in November, and then Matt Pearson, who’s our academy scout, has kind of an encyclopedic mind of young players, and he has notes on these guys going back for years,” Rock said. “Matt did a lot of due diligence calling college coaches.”
They knew a couple things going in. One, they had already traded away the number six overall selection to Colorado for $125,000 in General Allocation Money, so they weren’t going to have one of the top picks. Two, they didn’t want to draft anyone who would stop the progress of a Homegrown player. The club has two Homegrown teenage goalkeepers on the first team, Chris Brady and Gabriel Slonina, so the draft board didn’t contain any goalkeepers. There simply wasn’t enough room to develop a third keeper. The club is also watching two Fire Academy players at Indiana University—forward Victor Bezerra and defender Spencer Glass—and both players may be in the cards in the future.
With that in mind, they settled on three guys they’d seen before—Ragen at Michigan, Pinzon at Cal State Fullerton, and Guitar, who was a star at Wisconsin a few years ago before a major injury.
“Jackson Reagan at University of Michigan, someone like Matt’s been able to see him and watch his development over a couple of years now,” Rock said. “With Mitch Guitar, his sophomore year before his injury he was probably Wisconsin’s most important, most valuable player, and there are guys on MLS rosters now who were on that team, so both of those players we were very familiar with, and as a result we had a little higher.”
There was a wrinkle with Guitar, however. Last year, he signed a deal with USL side Indy Eleven, where he’s under contract this season. Rock actually views that as a big positive. The Fire can watch him develop at a nearby club they respect.
“We spoke with [Indy Eleven] beforehand, and we knew that he was in their plans for this year, which led us to believe that he’ll have the opportunities to continue to grow,” Rock said.
Will they make the team?
The most recent Fire draft pick getting playing time is Elliot Collier, who was selected 49th overall in 2018. After getting minutes initially in 2018, Collier went away on loan to the USL’s Memphis 901 FC in 2019, before returning on trial and earning a new deal under Wicky. Last season’s top pick, Jonathan Jimenez, spent last season at Rio Grande Valley FC in the USL, but never saw any time with the Fire. So, will Ragen, Pinzon or Guitar ever see first team minutes with the Fire?
“That’s up to them,” Rock said. “We will continue to track them. We will bring them in, when appropriate to train with the first team, but it’s up to those players.”