Two of the Chicago Fire’s youngest members will have their eyes on taking the next step in their fledgling careers when the 2020 MLS regular season resumes this Thursday, Aug. 20, in Columbus.
Homegrown midfielders Javier Casas and Brian Gutiérrez were with the team in Orlando for the recently-completed MLS is Back Tournament, and both featured for the first time in head coach Raphael Wicky’s matchday roster during the group stage.
Now with that unique experience under their belt, the pair is eager for their first MLS minutes.
“That’s my goal right now -- my pro debut,” Gutiérrez said. “It’s a really good motivation for me to take my first step into what I want to achieve.”
Casas and Gutiérrez -- both 17 years of age -- have been in the Fire system since 2015, rising through the Academy as standout performers and earning Homegrown contracts as a result in March of this year. Signing with their hometown Club was the first major milestone of their careers, and they remain hungry for the second.
“I just have that eagerness to make that pro debut, whether it’s a minute or 30 seconds or whatever,” Casas said. “However long it is, I don’t care. I just want to get out there and play with the big guys.”
With the team having played just five matches so far in 2020, opportunities to play have been abnormally scarce. Casas signed on March 10, Gutiérrez signed on March 11, and Major League Soccer announced the suspension of the season due to COVID-19 on March 12.
Eight weeks of working out at home followed, before the Fire slowly progressed back into small group and full team training in June. Amid one of the most unique and challenging rookie seasons one can experience, Casas and Gutiérrez have found ways to keep things positive.
“Mentally, for me, I’m just very versatile,” Gutiérrez said. “If we’re going to play or not, I just keep working on what I’m doing. Keep having confidence in myself in every practice.”
Casas (far left) and Gutiérrez (second from left) participate in a drill with captain Francisco Calvo and Gastón Giménez.
“I definitely just dealt with it by being in the present,” Casas added. “Not really expecting much, just going with the flow. Whatever comes my way, I’m just going to have to deal with it. That’s the way I’ve been thinking about it lately.”
Inclusion in the squad that made the trip to Orlando in July for the MLS is Back Tournament was then a welcome opportunity for both players. Despite not seeing time on the field, they continued to adjust to the speed of the game at the MLS level from the sideline, while further building relationships with their teammates and coaches.
“You get more connected,” Gutiérrez said. “You get to know everybody -- the coaching staff, everybody -- which is really good. It was a good experience for us as young players to see how competitive and how fast MLS is.”
“It was pretty cool,” added Casas. “We still were all together as a team, doing activities here and there. You got the ping pong table, which was pretty cool. A couple guys brought some PlayStations. So it wasn’t like we didn’t have anything to do. I think we definitely got to know each and everybody a little bit more coming out of it.”
Upon their return to Chicago, the pair has remained focused on making the small, day-to-day improvements necessary to take the next step in their respective careers.
“I’m definitely trying to go to the gym as many times as I can after training,” Casas said. “It’s a very physical sport, especially with these bigger guys. I’m going to have to get bigger. I’m trying to get every opportunity to go to the gym and get in there. I’m also trying to better my technique. Obviously it’s way more fast-paced than the Academy, so just getting used to playing quicker and having my technique on point every time I get on the ball.”
Now, after nearly three weeks of training at SeatGeek Stadium and with experience gained from their time in Orlando, Wicky’s side is pointed towards their return to regular season play.
The Fire open their phase one schedule in the aforementioned contest against Crew SC on Thursday night (6:30 p.m. CT | WGN-TV, ESPN+, TUDN WRTO AM 1200), which begins a packed stretch of six matches in 24 days.
Outside of their individual work, the Homegrown duo feels confident the team will be up to the task.
“It’s been intense,” Gutiérrez said. “We’ve put in everything we have. It’s like another preseason, which is good for us to get momentum for the games coming up. The team has been well, and I think we’re really connected right now.”
While visions of their Fire debuts keep Casas and Gutiérrez motivated in training, the pair knows that the six games ahead are about more than what’s next on their personal to-do lists.
“For me, whether I play or not, it’s alright,” Casas said. “I just want to be there for the team, and support the team throughout these couple games. We have and try to get the best results we can in each game. That’s the most important thing.”