Oh hi! I’m Jiggly. And it’s a Tuesday.
Say what you will about the results, but the last two games have been fun from an off-the-pitch perspective. On Wednesday, I finally got certified for Safe Smoke, making me qualified to pop off smoke in the supporters’ section. Then, on Saturday, I hung out with some members of Barn Burners to watch the game together. It’s a group that was the original supporters’ section for the Fire that dwindled out over the years that I’ve been helping to try to bring back. Honestly, watching the game with them over some burgers and a lot of beer helped ease the pain of that game (who am I kidding, it was a lot of burgers too). Except there really wasn’t much pain, it’s something that I sort of expected, and the way it all happened just felt familiar, especially the unfamiliar stuff. That own goal is one of the most amazingly stupid things I’ve ever seen happen on a pitch. It was like watching the Butt-Fumble live all over again. With that being said, I think that the whole situation has had some people chanting a line that we’ve heard a lot over the past decade. So let’s look into what it actually entails.
Play The Kids
It’s a simple phrase, but it’s one that is used constantly around this time of year. The Chicago Fire, while technically in a playoff spot or fighting for one, look to be falling apart. Is it time for yet another rebuild in the offseason? Or maybe we’re getting another year of “continuity”, despite that literally meaning that nothing changes and results will likely not change either. Either way, for now, there’s not much that can be done. So why not let the kids play? It’s the sort of thing we see in a lot of sports, letting the younger players have a chance to get their reps in. It was Johan Cruyff, the greatest man in the game’s history, who said that the most important thing in player development was to make sure that youngsters got as many touches on the ball as possible. Letting them play in first team matches allows these kids valuable in-game experience for the level that they are trying to achieve. It shows whether or not they’re ready for the next step and even if they aren’t, it allows them to see what they need to do in order to make that next step. It’s also just generally fun to the next generation of the team out there playing for the first team. For a team that has nothing else to really watch for, it creates some amount of excitement for the future and fuels all that delusion hope that fans need for the coming season.
A problem is that there are a lot of people who say “Play the Kids”, but don’t actually know who they’re talking about. Maybe they know the names, but they really don’t pay attention to them. The Fire Academy is pretty difficult to keep up with if you didn’t already know where to look for the info and the MLS Next Pro site is probably the worst website I’ve ever been on. It’s so slow to load, the UI is terrible, and IT’S SO SLOW TO LOAD LITERALLY ANYTHING! They don’t just put stats in there, they’ve gotta have the stats brought up by widgets and so you’ve loaded up the page for at least two minutes and then it takes another five minutes for the widgets to finally load up! And then when you sort the stats, it takes another five minutes! It’s stupid! It’s like MLS doesn’t want any of us to know what’s going on in MLS Next Pro! Well, I found out! Not only did I wait around for things to load, but my dad follows the Chicago Fire II games pretty closely and I trust his scouting reports. I also go to some games, but this is mostly based on his reads. So I’ll be defining “The Kids” for this article to be any academy graduate with a first-team contract, but less than 90 minutes played on the season for the first team. Let’s get started:
First up is Victor Bezerra, the oldest of the group. This man is just under 24 years old. He’s almost as old as me! And I’m not saying that I’m that old, but I think I’m a bit too old to be considered a “youngster” or a “prospect” in an area where you’re usually supposed to peak around 27. This is mostly because Bezerra is the only one out of all of these guys to go to college. While he was there, at Indiana, he averaged about 15 goal contributions a season and was consistently clutch for the Hoosiers. He actually was named a runner-up for the MAC Hermann Trophy, which is basically the soccer equivalent to a Heisman. If a Fire fan were aware of his existence, they were probably begging for him to get on the pitch as Robert Berić fumbled around. The problem is that Bezerra has struggled to remain healthy and when he has been healthy, the team just hasn’t given him a chance to prove himself.
Next is Alex Monis, a guy who did get a chance and took it. He’s a good kid with a great story and has been around the club longer than you may think. He was signed in early 2020 and was almost immediately shipped off to Forward Madison on loan alongside Chris Brady. While there, I’ve heard Mingo fans say that they thought he was the more likely player to get a chance with the first team. But… he hasn’t gotten one. In just two minutes last season, he scored his first and so far only professional goal for the club with a game-tying goal in the final game of the season. You’d think that’d get him some respect, but he’s been kept down with the Fire II. He’s continued to play well down there, but he’s barely logged 10 minutes top-side. It’s even weirder when you consider that he’s a right winger, but he’s been forced to play on the left for some reason. (Editor’s note: Monis has been loaned to Rio Grande Valley FC for the remainder of the season.)
After him is Javier Casas. I’ll be honest, I personally don’t see much out of him. Maybe I’m not looking hard enough, but it’s just confused me for years that he’s gotten the most minutes out of all of these “kids” yet I don’t know what he’s actually good at. He even gets the captain’s armband in Fire II games pretty often. I will say, that he did get that pass leading to the assist for Kamara’s game-winner against Miami earlier this year, but that confusion can’t just be ignored. He doesn’t really fit a role that this team has. He’s not a defensive player, so he’s not a 6. He isn’t really the “creative” guy, so he’s not a 10. He might be an 8, which would make my confusion make so much more sense since I’m very bad with 8s, but the team doesn’t exactly have space for an 8 that isn’t expected to go back on defense. We’ve already got Gastón and Doum, who can do either thing better. Maybe I do just need to see him more and really focus in on just him and his game.
Then there’s Missael Rodríguez, the Golden Boot of the 2021 MLS Next Cup Playoffs. The young striker scored eight goals in five matches then and had Fire fans immediately begging for him to get a contract offer. He showed up in Sector for that one game, it was great. And then he immediately disappeared. He made a single 15-minute appearance this season at the end of the Montréal game, but he’s just sorta been elsewhere. Even when he’s been on the pitch for Fire II, he’s been played out on the wing for some reason, which has tanked his effectiveness. It doesn’t help that he’s also been either injured or simply unable to play for Fire II because he’s gotta go sit on the bench for 90 minutes with the first team.
Alongside Missa, Sergio Oregel was on that same 2021 MLS Next Cup Championship team, earning the Golden Ball. He was supposed to be the even more impressive prospect, with solid distribution abilities and creative skills at the 10. The problem I’ve seen is that he’s only ever played at the 6. I’ve only ever seen him at the 6. He sucks there. He loses most of his duels, he barely has any sort of defensive work on record, but his passing is still solid. When he’s got guys around him, when he’s working the ball around, he still has that ability. But instead, he’s stuck with a lot of defensive work that he’s not equipped for and his struggles in that spot may be keeping him from making it upstairs.
Finally, we’ve got Justin Reynolds. You may be thinking, “I remember him. He’s that left back. I thought they didn’t re-sign him.” Wrong, you’re thinking of his brother, Andre Reynolds. Justin is a right back (that they play on the left for some reason). You should actually remember him for being sent off like, every other game last season for Fire II. Technically, it was just only two games, but it was still very funny. He’s past that now, but he’s still a bit of a question mark as a whole. It’s hard for me to ever really judge defenders, especially when much of their success depends on the success of their teammates, but he’s done pretty well for a wide defender. He should be a decent option should the need arise. Although, I guess the need has arisen… Multiple times.
Look, most of these guys have been with the Fire for over two years. Ever since the introduction of MLS Next Pro, it’s been a solid holding pen for pre-homegrown players who aren’t ready to sign a professional contract yet and the homegrown players who have signed but aren’t ready for The Show. Some of those on pro contracts signed those before the introduction of Fire II, so it was the only way to claim dibs. But since then, we’ve only seen Justin added. And since then, the only Fire II player we’ve seen promoted was Chris Brady, who was already playing at a higher level than most of his teammates. Some of these guys were signed when they were really young, but it’s starting to get to a point in their development where you’ve gotta start asking whether or not they’re going to develop any more. When are they going to see the pitch? We’ve had issues with depth, losing players to injury, call-ups, and suspensions, but somehow none of the “Kids” have gotten any sort of chance to step in and prove themselves. Is there a reason? Is it because they suck or is it because management has sucked? At this point, it could be either and I wouldn’t even know.
Despite having a fairly star-studded history with our academy, the Chicago Fire have a nearly as-strong history of mismanaging young talent. As I said before, the records for the academy are a bit difficult to find when you have no direction and I lost my compass a while ago. But I do remember that much like that 2021 U19 team I mentioned, the Fire have had a couple of youth championship teams. But how many players from those squads actually made it up? Just Djordje Mihailovic? We’ve had a few different “golden generations” that have sorta just slipped by. Andrew Gutman, Cam Lindley, and Damian Las were all players who were known quantities and highly rated while in the academy, and yet they asked to go elsewhere. Sure, most of them didn’t tear up the soccer world, but I believe in the idea that some guys just play better for their hometown club. And we haven’t seen much of that with the Fire recently.
Okay, actually we kinda have. Maybe we’re already “Playing the Kids”. Chris Brady is 19. Brian Gutiérrez turned 20 this season. Both are younger than about half of the guys I mentioned earlier. They were ready for first team minutes and were given them. Hell, Koutsias isn’t a Fire Academy product, but even he’s only older than Oregel and Justin. Brady has done well this season despite what’s been thrown at him. If you are of the opinion that anything is his fault, despite how everyone saw this week when his teammates took more shots on his net than on the opponents’ net, then I would like to suggest you get some help. I don’t know what kind of help you need, I just think you need it. Guti is one of our top goal contributors and is tied for the most starts of any player this season with Rafael Czichos and Brady. Koutsias, while arriving late, has shown tremendous ability at pressuring defenses while off the ball. And all three of these players still look like they can improve.
So that’s really where we’re at here. Because while fans can say “Play the Kids”, the Kids are already playing. They’re our top performers. Because this group is just a bunch of old and ineffective guys mixed with a group of young players that were either failed signings or solid players that are now having their confidence shot to bits. I don’t know how you can get more “Play the Kids” than with Guti and Brady being in the Top 3 for minutes on this team. And those who aren’t on the roster… I don’t even know anymore. Maybe the Fire just don’t believe in them anymore and are slowly trying to wait for their contracts to run out. Or maybe the management just can’t figure themselves out and find a place to put them. I said earlier that a few of them are out of position on Fire II, so maybe they’re just trying to get them ready to be versatile when they’re in the big leagues? Really, there’s only one player on Fire II that’s already signed to the first team that has been genuinely impressive and that’s Monis. But, as I said, he’s a right winger, which would already place him at a disadvantage against Guti, Xherdan Shaqiri, and Maren Haile-Selassie. Speaking of them, two of those can qualify as “Kids” while also being the top offensive contributors of the club and the other is supposed to be the star-man mentor. There’s also the “star-man prospect” in Jairo Torres that plays in that same area.
My point here is that we can talk all we want about wanting to see the Fire “Play the Kids”, but it just doesn’t seem worth it. Even in a worthless season where you should be working to develop your youngsters, the youngsters that seem to be worth developing have been developing. Meanwhile, anyone who doesn’t meet the weirdly high standards that a club of our caliber has is essentially getting tossed aside. Whether it’s justified or not is definitely debatable, but the fact of the matter is that I’m not sure if any of the players up there in bold will ever get more than 100 minutes in a season. Let alone for a team that keeps gaslighting itself into believing that there’s still a chance for success in 2023.
Pulled Me Back In. The Red Stars won, so that’s nice. The Laura Ricketts sale has officially gone through, which means it might be time for me to head back to a game some time soon. They’ve still got a lot of work to do to fix both the roster and training conditions of the club.
There’s Been a Misunderstanding. I messed up last week by quoting “King Richard IV Part 2”. It was actually Shakespeare’s “King Henry IV Part 2”. I’m very tired when I write this.
FOOTBALL IS BACK, BABY! You guys, football is back this week. I’m so excited to have Redzone playing in the background as I do something else on Sundays. Saturdays are also fun, but I need structure and Redzone provides that.
Still Love Karlach. Usually I have something new and different I did this week, but I’ve just continued playing Baldur’s Gate 3. It took me almost 60 hours to finally make it to the city the game is named after.
I love you.
And I’ll see you next week.