In his first preseason as Chicago Fire FC head coach, Raphael Wicky is staying true to his academy coaching roots.
Through three weeks of camp, Wicky has integrated five members of the Fire FC Academy into the Club’s training and travel regimen, embedding them among their professional peers to learn what it takes to succeed day-to-day at the MLS level.
In Tampa, the first team was accompanied on the road by Academy standouts Javier Casas, Alex Monis, and Allan Rodriguez. In Los Angeles, goalkeeper Chris Brady and midfielder Brian Gutierrez have joined the fray. All five participated in the Fire's week of training at the CIBC Fire Pitch in Chicago.
It’s common for youth players to play above their age level as a means of development, but jumping up to the first team is especially challenging.
“The intensity level is just way higher above the bar,” Casas, a 16-year-old midfielder, said. “The consistency - every day the professionals just come into training with a super high mentality and wanting to get better. Everybody is so into the training, talking and everything. The intensity level and the performance level, it’s very different.”
As far as first team exposure goes, Casas is the most experienced of the bunch, having also participated in the Club’s 2018 preseason camp in Florida. He, Monis, and Gutierrez represent the Fire at the Under-17 level and are regulars with the Under-16 U.S. Men’s National team. The trio helped guide the U.S. to a tournament win in the 2019 Nike International Friendlies back in mid-November.
Above: Javier Casas (left) watches a drill alongside Jonathan Bornstein (right) at a preseason training session in Tampa, Fl.
Rodriguez -- a product of the Indiana Fire Academy -- is the youngest of the bunch at 15 and captained the U.S. U-15s to first place in Group B in the 2019 Concacaf Boys’ U-15 Championship, where they eventually fell to tournament guest Portugal in the semifinals.
“When I first found out (I was traveling), I was kind of nervous, you know?” Rodriguez said. “It’s my first time being with the first team. I’m young still. I’m only 15, so I don’t have as much experience as (Alex and Javier). They have experience with the first team already, but I don’t. So it was nervousness at first, but at the same time excitement. It’s a privilege to go with the first team.”
While traveling for preseason camp is an opportunity to train and learn alongside veterans of both the domestic and international game, it’s also a chance to learn from the academy group to follow an example set by their peers. The Fire roster currently boasts six homegrown players (Mauricio Pineda, Nick Slonina, Andre Reynolds II, Gabriel Slonina, Jeremiah Gutjahr, and Djordje Mihailovic) who – through varying paths – have completed the same journey from academy player to professional that Casas, Monis, Rodriguez, Brady, and Gutierrez are currently navigating.
“It’s good to be in training with guys like that,” Monis said. “It shows that we’re not too far. We still have a long ways to go, but it’s definitely achievable. They demonstrate the right habits and show us how things should be done to get to the next level, so it’s good to be training with those guys.”
Wicky’s experience grooming youth players – first with the FC Basel academy in Switzerland and more recently as head coach of the U.S. Under-17 team – has helped orient the young members of the group towards taking their next respective steps.
“When you are 15-, 16-, or 17-years-old and you can train with the first team, it’s a privilege,” Wicky said following a training session in Tampa. “I told them that. I think they’re doing a good job. I think they feel that it’s a big step. Everything is faster, everything is stronger. They have to think faster, but they’re doing a good job. So far, I’m happy with them. It’s just important that the day they go back to the academy, they have to have the same mentality in training with the academy that they have here.”
“They’re good people,” Rodriguez said of Wicky and his staff. “Coach Wicky was with the national team, so we know him from there. He’s a good guy, good personality. He’s always interacting and having conversations with the players about the vision.”
All three of Casas, Monis, and Rodriguez saw action in the Fire’s 3-1 friendly win over Nashville SC in Tampa on Thursday, entering as second half substitutions and helping close out the victory.
Above: Alex Monis takes on a defender in the Fire's 3-1 preseason win over Nashville SC on Thursday, Feb. 6.
As Brady and Gutierrez re-join the squad for its Los Angeles leg of camp, the five will prepare for a uniquely hectic two weeks on the West Coast. The first team play four more preseason friendlies before returning to Chicago, while the Academy Under-17s resume 2020 Generation adidas Cup regional qualifying on Friday at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, Ca. Casas, Gutierrez, and Rodriguez all took part in the first of the four L.A. friendlies, a 2-0 win against Orange County SC on Wednesday.
Monis is feeling prepared for it all, thanks to the support he and his teammates continue to receive from the Academy staff.
“There’s a lot of the same principles and similar things that we do in (Academy) training that’s very similar to what we’re doing here during the preseason,” he said. “The Academy coaching staff is helping us with individual work, tactics, just helping us grow to be better players. It’s prepared us well for this level of play, the speed of play, and everything we’re experiencing here.”
As GA Cup qualifying resumes, the Fire Under-17 team currently sits atop qualifying Group B, having gone a perfect 3-0-0 at Fall regionals in October in Kansas City. They’ll take on their counterparts from San Jose, Sporting Kansas City, and Minnesota this weekend and look to advance to Division 1 of the 2020 tournament finals at the Toyota Soccer Center in Frisco, Texas later this Spring.
While it remains to be seen how each player will divide his time between Academy duty and the first team responsibilities over the course of the week, the players know that their respective experiences gained from camp can have a wide and lasting impact.
“From this experience with the first team, we should bring that mentality back to the academy to raise the bar higher than when we left,” Casas said. “We have to go over to the GA cup and win all three games and have high expectations.”