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With a growing list of promising youngsters, how will the Chicago Fire find minutes for everyone?

Developing talent starts with match minutes, but the pandemic prevented several players from seeing any game action in 2020. That should change in 2021.

Chicago Fire Homegrown midfielder Brian Gutierrez came on at halftime in Saturday’s preseason win over NYCFC
Chicago Fire FC

For many players on the Chicago Fire roster, last Saturday’s preseason opener was just a simple tune-up match before the season gets underway. It was a friendly, played on a field outside an Orlando resort, with trees and a road nearby. Play-by-play man Tyler Terens set up shop at a folding table to call the match solo for the club’s website. It was a long way from a Sunday night Soldier Field match on national TV.

But for a few guys on the Fire, it marked the first time they saw any meaningful match minutes in more than a year. For a club undergoing a youth movement, that’s a problem. There are few subjects in soccer where most coaches agree, but this is one: young players need games to develop and grow. Training is great, but it’s not enough.

Defenders Nick Slonina and Andre Reynolds II started the match against NYCFC, along with midfielders Javier Casas, Jr. and Alex Monis. In the second half, Fire coach Raphael Wicky substituted the entire eleven, bringing on goalkeeper Gabriel Slonina and midfielder Brian Gutierrez, among others. After the match, Wicky seemed pleased—almost relieved—he was able to get minutes for many of the team’s young players.

“Important. A lot of our players who were here last year, who didn’t start in the MLS, or didn’t get a lot of games, they didn’t have any games, because it wasn’t possible to have friendly games,” Wicky said. “So, I’m very happy that all of these players get minutes now in the preseason, and pushing for a spot. I’m happy with that.”

2020 was a struggle

Last season saw the Fire sign five teenage Homegrown players from the club’s academy system, bringing the total to eight Homegrowns aged 19 or younger. Of those, three of them—the Slonina brothers and Casas—didn’t play a single match in 2020. Reynolds played twice for the first team, registering 16 minutes. Gutierrez saw late action in six matches, playing 27 total minutes.

Just before the MLS is Back tournament began in early July, the club sent three players on loan to USL League One affiliate Forward Madison. After riding the bench for a month, Chris Brady was able to win the starting job, going all 90 minutes in eight different matches, which earned him USL Young Player of the Year honors. Monis saw 166 minutes of action across six matches before picking up an injury, and Allan Rodriguez logged 107 minutes in two matches.

What about 2021?

Once the Fire sent Monis, Brady and Rodriguez to Forward Madison last season, they were stuck. Because of the pandemic, the club couldn’t recall those three, or send any other players to Madison on loan. The Fire are expecting more flexibility of roster movement in 2021 as more people get vaccinated, and the threat of COVID-19 lessens. It means we’ll likely different Fire players in Madison at different times, and loan stints might be a lot shorter, allowing more players to play.

It’s also likely that some players will see more significant minutes with the first team. Veterans like Brandt Bronico, CJ Sapong, and Micheal Azira were all let go to to make room for these younger players. Gutierrez was the closest of the field players to a full breakthrough last season so he could be a candidate for more minutes, and one of Brady or Gabriel Slonina will likely be the Fire’s No. 2 goalkeeper on opening day, as Kenneth Kronholm continues to recover from an injury. The environment is primed for a breakthrough, too. Wicky has told all of the young players to come in, compete, and try to take an older player’s job.

One thing we probably won’t see, however, is any of the first team guys going back to the Fire Academy for minutes. MLS rules don’t prevent it, but unless there’s some kind of extreme circumstance, the Fire aren’t interested in going that route, we’re told.

Building ‘The Roaster’

When Georg Heitz first signed with the Fire as sporting director in late 2019, he used an interesting phrase to describe what he was hoping to build: “the roaster.” His vision for the Fire was similar to what he had at FC Basel—a club that’s constantly churning out young talent. The players are here. Now, it’s a matter of firing up the roaster, getting these guys some valuable first team minutes, and seeing which of these guys will break through and become an MLS star.