Since before he could even form memories, Missael Rodríguez was a Fire fan.
From the living room of his family’s Chicago Lawn home, he holds an old photo up to the camera. Turned backwards and several sizes too big, a hat emblazoned with the original Fire logo sits atop a beaming toddler’s head.
“I don’t remember because I was little, but I have a Fire hat and I have a Chivas jersey.”
The red-and-white stripes of his Dad’s team - Chivas de Guadalajara - run towards his knees, only slightly more suited to his frame.
“I always ran around in soccer uniforms and soccer stuff…That’s all I owned. I just wanted to wear soccer shirts.”
Now 18 years old, things have come full circle. Rodriguez is set to embark on his first season as a professional in 2022, having been signed as a Homegrown player alongside fellow Fire Academy product Sergio Oregel in October.
The pair’s respective elevations to the first team are a testament to the strength in their connections to family, city, and club from a very early age.
Missael Rodríguez | Behind the Scenes
Oregel, 16, remembers running around McKinley Park with a ball at his feet as a four-year-old, not letting his age deter his confidence in dribbling 1-v-1 at his dad.
Like Rodríguez, Oregel’s Fire fandom also began with his head, albeit under different circumstances.
“I went to go see a game, and I was going to stay after the game to say ‘hi’ to the players,” he said. “I was going to get my jersey signed by (former Fire goalkeeper) Sean Johnson. I walked up, and this lady turned around and kind of elbowed me in the face (laughs). I turned back to my parents crying, but I still got a picture with him, so that was great.”
Born in 2005, Oregel was five years old when Sean Johnson’s tenure in net for the Fire began in 2010.
“I would always go see the games,” he added. “I would always wait after the games to say ‘hi’ to the players. That was always something cool. (Bastian) Schweinsteiger, of course, because he’s a beast…but everybody on the team was amazing.”
Rodríguez, being two years older than Oregel, saw his formative years intersect with Fire and Mexican National Team legend Cuauhtemoc Blanco’s memorable three-season stint in Chicago in the late ‘00s.
“My dad loved when the Fire brought in Blanco when I was little," Rodríguez said. "We would specifically go watch him when the Fire played with Cuauhtémoc Blanco, and Pavel Pardo. Those were my players growing up.”
As the kids in the stands eventually took to the field themselves, both experienced early successes on the youth level. Rodríguez even won a state championship as a freshman at Solorio Academy in 2017. However, their respective trajectories shot upward upon joining the Fire Academy in 2018.
Rodríguez joined at the end of the 2017-18 season, then scored 10 goals and added three assists in his first season as a U-15. At the U-14 level, Oregel scored nine goals and dished out 15 assists in his first year with the Club.
"I wasn’t a very disciplined player growing up - I just had talent," Oregel said. "You need to have everything to be at the first team, so (the Academy) taught me how to be responsible and more disciplined. I know it was hard for them (laughs), but we worked through it."
They would both, of course, go on to become integral parts of the Fire U-19 team that won the inaugural MLS NEXT U-19 Championship last July. Oregel was recognized as the best player of the tournament in his age division, earning the tournament’s Golden Ball award. Rodríguez scored the game-winning goal in the 80th minute of the final to propel the Fire U-19s to a 1-0 victory over Solar SC. With a tournament-high eight goals in five matches, he earned the competition’s Golden Boot award.
Professional contracts quickly followed. Rodríguez’s announcement as the 21st Homegrown signing in Fire history came on Oct. 12, then Oregel’s as the 22nd on Oct. 23. Alongside their families, both were recognized on-field during the Fire’s Oct. 23 home match against Real Salt Lake.
Sergio Oregel | Behind the Scenes
“It was a special moment not only for me, but for my family and my coaches,” Rodríguez said. “All the work that they put in to help me become the player I am today. My dad, my mom, my family in general to help me become the person I am today. It was a moment where I gave back to them.”
“You love to see everybody there,” Oregel - who had 130 people in attendance - added. “The support from the fans, my family, my friends, my coaches - I feel the love and I can’t wait to get started.”
The duo will begin their professional journeys alongside fellow 2022 Homegrown rookie Victor Bezerra when the Fire head to Orlando for preseason camp in mid-January.
With the number of Homegrown products on head coach Ezra Hendrickson’s roster now up to 11, Rodríguez and Oregel eagerly await their opportunity to be the next to show off what their families and their city have helped them become.
“Everywhere I go, I say I’m from Chicago,” Rodríguez said. “I’m so happy, so proud of being from Chicago. It made me who I am today.”
“Going from being one of the kids in the stands to being one of the kids on the field, it’s crazy,” Oregel said.
“I love everything the city has to offer, and I can’t wait to represent it.”