Fire Academy Director Larry Sunderland may be gone, but the club will continue to see his efforts realized in first team additions over the next few years via the Homegrown Player rule. The latest players to be promoted to the big roster are University of Wisconsin midfielder Drew Conner, and Northwestern forward Joey Calistri. The pair are the seventh and eighth Homegrown signings in team history.
Both are seniors in their final years of college play that would have been eligible for January’s SuperDraft. Conner will most likely find his spot in the pro game as a holding midfielder. As a starter all four years at Wisconsin, he played several midfield positions and was the Badgers captain last season. Calistri struggled a bit to score in his senior year but did tally 30 times in his four years at NU.
It’s difficult to see them stepping in as immediate first year contributors and it’s likely that both could end up on loan with Saint Louis FC this coming season. The Fire sent several players to their USL affiliate last season but playing time wasn’t always readily available due to commitments to other players. Collin Fernandez, was loaned to Louisville City FC because the main affiliate had others in front of him. The team, and the careers of Homegrown Players would best be served by the formation of a full-time USL club for which the Fire could control and develop players who have graduated from the Academy, but that doesn’t appear to be an option for this season.
Fernandez, an attacking left midfielder, does have some potential at the MLS level but needs playing time to develop. He is currently on a training stint with La Liga club Villareal, which should provide a good learning opportunity for him. While on loan with Louisville City in 2015, Fernandez only appeared in 4 games, started once, and logged 130 minutes. That’s obviously not enough competitive time over the course of one year to expect substantial development.
Out of the five developmental players loaned out last season, only Patrick Doody and Alec Kann saw substantial playing time. Doody appeared in 21 games, started 18, and got 1654 minutes. Kann, who has since been selected by Sporting Kansas City in the first round of the Re-Entry Draft started 19 games in Saint Louis. Kingsley Bryce played sporadically, 10 games, eight starts and 671 minutes while Greg Cochrane logged 4 GP, 3 GS, and 310 minutes in short stays.
A Chicago USL squad would not only give the current crop of Homegrown Players a chance to develop under the watchful eye of Fire staff on a full-time basis, but it would also provide incentive to Academy players to stay with the Club and develop if they’re not headed for college soccer. There are potential Homegrowns in the pipeline currently playing or headed for NCAA teams. Grant Lillard, Andrew Gutman, Mauricio Pineda, and Cameron Lindley are names that come to mind as prospects who are potentially capable of being important contributors to the first team, but they’re all currently at the freshman/sophomore levels. Lindley and Pineda, both regulars with the US U20 program, don’t begin at North Carolina until next year.
With both Nelson Rodridguez and Veljko Paunovic citing the importance of youth development in the evolution of the club, a USL squad would seem to be a logical next step. Conner, Calistri, and others will develop and contribute much more quickly and effectively with one.
Is it just a matter of time?