Last Sunday, Fire defender/midfielder Mauricio Pineda wrapped up his second stint in camp with the U.S. Men’s National Team. It was a fitting way for the 23-year-old to begin his sophomore season as a professional, having progressed a long way in a short time since signing his Homegrown contract last January.
Initially called into the Under-23 camp, Pineda was elevated to U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter’s senior squad ahead of their 7-0 defeat of Trinidad & Tobago at Orlando’s Exploria Stadium. While he did not receive his first senior international appearance in the win, 2021 will not be short on opportunities for the Bolingbrook native to prove his worth at the next level. Olympic qualifying, the Concacaf Gold Cup, and World Cup Qualifying all still lie ahead in a stacked international competition calendar.
A USMNT cap would be another milestone to an already lengthy list of accomplishments for Pineda, who is only in his second season as a professional in 2021. Elected the Fire’s Defensive Player of the Year after his standout debut season in MLS, Pineda has gone from signing his Homegrown contract to becoming a “fundamental piece of the future for this Club” in barely more than a year.
With his second Fire preseason now up next, Pineda took time to reflect on his latest experience with the USMNT, his growth as a player in the last year, and his mindset entering the 2021 MLS regular season.
Read highlights from the conversation (edited for clarity) below:
ChicagoFireFC.com: Generally, how are you feeling coming out of camp and what were your immediate takeaways from the experience?
Mauricio Pineda: “Overall, it was really positive. It’s obviously good to be in camp. I was really excited when I was going into U-23 camp. From the first day, they told us our primary goal would be to try to stay with the first team. That was the most important thing for me going into that camp. The player pool is really talented, so I knew it would be difficult to do that. I was really happy to be able to stay with the team in Orlando for the game against Trinidad. It was a really good experience. It’s always good working with all the best players - mostly from this league - learning from a lot of guys that are more established pros. It’s always positive to have an experience like that.”
CFFC.com: This was your second time with the senior USMNT after getting your first call-in back in December. How different were your expectations going into camp this time around?
MP: “My expectations were the same. We knew we’d be in and around the first team. This one was labeled as a U-23 Camp, but we were still in training with the first team. Overall it was a pretty similar experience (to December), but obviously one that you don’t want to take for granted. The approach for the camp was the same thing - just take it day by day and try to show what you can do. For me, I think it was a little bit better being the second camp. The first camp you’re I guess a little more excited just because it is your first camp, maybe a little nervous trying to settle in. Knowing that it was the second camp, I think that took a little bit of that off and just let me focus more on showing what I can do. In terms of that, it was pretty good."
CFFC.com: What have your conversations with Berhalter and (U.S. Men’s Under-23 Coach) Jason Kreis been like over the last few weeks as it relates to where they see your role in the U.S. setup both short- and long-term?
MP: “That was something we talked about overall as a group. Going into camp with the first team there, the first goal was to try to get the call-up for the next part of camp. At the same time, you want to have a good camp and show what you can do for the Olympics and the qualifiers coming up. It was nice to be there with both groups. Obviously we have a really busy year in terms of competitions for U.S. Soccer, so just making the most of that opportunity whether it’s taking the one you might get with the first team if they need you or with the Olympic team if they need you. It’s just making the most of it and trying to put your name in the player pool for a pretty big year coming up for U.S. Soccer.”
CFFC.com: Getting the call-in for U-23 camp is certainly a signal that you’ll be in the mix for inclusion in the upcoming Olympic qualifiers in March. What would that opportunity mean to you?
MP: “Growing up, everyone wishes to play in the Olympics or in the qualifiers. We didn’t get into too much detail about that. Generally for everyone it was talking about making the most of the opportunity to try to get a spot for either that or with the first team if you’re lucky. Hopefully that opportunity comes and obviously I would love to play in either the Olympics or the qualifiers.”
CFFC.com: Were you working on anything specifically with the USMNT staff while in camp to help take that next step and contribute to the hectic international calendar ahead?
MP: “Not specifically, but going through training every day, it’s just something we do intuitively. I think there’s a lot that I learned in the three weeks that we had. Jason and Gregg do a really good job of just giving you a lot of information and letting you take it and and learn as much as you can. I did learn a lot, even though they didn’t tell me directly where I need to improve my game. It was a good experience with both coaches.”
CFFC.com: The 7-0 win against Trinidad & Tobago made it three straight blowout wins for the U.S. going back to December. What do you think those results say about the current state of the program?
MP: “In training, there were times when we were playing against the first team and it was really difficult. You get put in really hard situations. You think about how us, as a team, we’re expecting these things and we know what’s coming, but it’s still hard to deal with even though you know that it’s coming. I think that makes it really difficult for other teams then when they don’t know what’s coming. Gregg has a really good idea in place of how he wants to play and how he wants his team to look. I think that’s really exciting for all of U.S. Soccer fans and everyone that follows. I can say from experience that it’s really difficult to play against and deal with, so it’s exciting to see it and be a part of it moving forward.”
CFFC.com: What do you make of this surge of young, emerging U.S. talent making waves both at home and abroad, and what’s it like to be part of this generation?
MP: “It’s obviously a great feeling. There’s lot of guys that I’ve played with in U-18 and U-20 camps before, so it’s good to see those guys back in camp. Then, there’s some of the younger guys who I kind of just knew through social media, so I was just getting to play with them and see what they’re like. Then there’s the older guys that through the years you’ve watched them play, and now you’re here playing with them and competing against them. It’s a really big mix of players that are really exciting to work with.”
CFFC.com: Coming out of camp, you’re still waiting for that first cap. How hungry are you to get it and how do you envision that moment when it happens?
MP: “It’s obviously a moment that I feel like I’ve gotten close to. My biggest thing as a player is to just keep working hard day-by-day, and hopefully good things are coming for me. I’m obviously really excited for that moment. I don’t really know how to envision it (laughs). I’m just hoping that it comes one day. I’ll just keep working for it.”
CFFC.com: The U.S. call-in capped an undeniably impressive year for you, going back to last January when you signed your contract with the Fire. How much have you reflected on your list of accomplishments from season one as a pro, and how do you now build on that and improve in year two?
MP: “I don’t like to look back on the past a lot, but I think my biggest thing is just taking it day by day, moment by moment. It doesn’t seem real looking back on it to think that I had all those accomplishments. I’m so focused on just what I can do better today or tomorrow, and I feel like those things just come if you keep working hard. But, there’s always some time to look back and reflect on the good things and the things you can get better at. It’s obviously been a really happy year for me, the last year. This year got off to a really good start. It’s probably the best way I could spend the offseason going into preseason, so I’m glad I had that opportunity to prepare me for this season to have another good season with the Fire.”
CFFC.com: Looking ahead to preseason and getting ready for the 2021 campaign with the Fire, what excites you the most about the upcoming season?
MP: “Hopefully a more consistent year. That’s something that I think we’re all looking forward to as a team. More consistent games, and just getting back to work with a lot of guys that we had last year. I think we really enjoyed what we had going, even though some results didn’t go our way. I think everyone’s mindset was the same - just getting back to work this following year. I’m really excited for that and hopefully getting some good results for the club.”
CFFC.com: At some point in the future, Fire fans will return to Soldier Field at last for a long delayed homecoming. As a Bolingbrook native, what will it mean to finally have your hometown fans screaming at your back?
MP: “It’s honestly really difficult to feel what that’s going to be like. Even in an empty stadium at Soldier Field, it was an unbelievable feeling walking into the stadium. It’s such an amazing stadium, and I can only imagine what it’s going to be like when it’s full of Fire fans eager to get back out and cheer on the team. I’m really excited for that moment. I don’t want to set high or low expectations for it, I just want to hopefully live it one day. I think it’ll be great.”