Raphael Wicky’s comments about his lack of substitutions in the Chicago Fire’s 3-1 loss to Atlanta United did not sit well with many fans. With players like Fabian Herbers, Ignacio Aliseda and Elliot Collier injured, I asked him after the match why he didn’t turn to one of the Homegrown players he had available on the bench, like Javier Casas, Jr. or Alex Monis, when the team was searching for a goal with tired legs.
“Javi Casas is a center midfielder,” Wicky said. “He’s not an offensive player. And Alex Monis, right now, in this game, I didn’t think he’s ready to step in there and help us. That’s the only thing. He’s 18 years old. He doesn’t have any games in this league. That’s the reason. That’s the reason why I kept going with this group, and didn’t stop.”
I’ll give Wicky credit on a few points here. One, he sees training, and we don’t. He should have a better sense than anyone whether his tired starters offered a better chance at a goal than his untested subs. And, two, I know it can’t be fun to be second guessed by a bunch of writers immediately after a tough loss. Wicky is always gracious with his time, and answers questions with class. I appreciate that.
There’s another thing to consider here. If Robert Berić doesn’t hit the woodwork on his cheeky chip over Brad Guzan in the 82nd minute, the match is tied at two. Perhaps Emerson Hyndman doesn’t score the third goal, and the Fire escape with a point. That scenario was inches away from happening, and we all would have felt a lot better about Wicky and his decision making. Those are the margins here.
In the context of the Atlanta game, I’ll assume he made the right call. But there’s a bigger picture issue here.
Even if the Fire had stolen a point against the Five Stripes, that wouldn’t change the fact that the Fire have a slew of Homegrowns that need games to develop. Top level training is great, but you’re not truly tested, and you can’t truly grow as a player, until you play real matches. MLS has a U-23 league in development, but until that’s finally up and running, the Fire will have several players on the roster stuck in MLS purgatory—too good for the Academy, but apparently not good enough to play regular minutes for the first team. We can’t expect Forward Madison to give consistent playing time to all of them, either.
That brings us to this question: even if Wicky felt Monis wasn’t ready, should he have played him anyway? I saw a few fans mention they’d rather lose by a wider margin if it meant some of the Homegrowns finally got to play meaningful MLS minutes. How can a player actually get MLS experience without playing an MLS game? I don’t think anyone expects Monis to be Berić or even Chinonso Offor, but he would have played his ass off, to be sure. A bad performance may have hurt his confidence, but what does not being trusted to play at all do to it?
I’m not a huge fan of college soccer, but if I’m a Fire Academy star at this point, I’d give a hard look at what Victor Bezerra is doing at Indiana, and what Mauricio Pineda did at North Carolina, and consider going to college before signing a Homegrown deal. College games are better than no games.
Other MLS clubs have this figured out. Brenden Aaronson scored seven goals in 51 games as a teenager for the Philadelphia Union before jumping over to play for Jesse Marsch at Red Bull Salzburg. At some point, Jim Curtin trusted him enough to give him a debut.
Maybe there isn’t a Brenden Aaronson on this roster. But, if the Fire don’t trust our Homegrowns, how will we know? How will they ever... grow?