Chicago Fire's Paunovic is counting on new youngsters

By Ridge Mahoney

The Fire has been training for more than two weeks, and on Monday the ranks were supplemented by the arrivals from U.S. national team camp of Matt Polster, Sean Johnson and rookie Brandon Vincent.

Their experiences varied. Polster and Johnson didn’t appear in either match against Iceland and Canada, and Vincent punctuated a strong camp with an impressive second half that included a hard, low shot that cannoned off the legs of Canadian keeper Maxime Crepeau

All three will be counted on as head coach Veljko Paunovic and general manager Nelson Rodriguez continue their transformation of the league’s worst team in 2015. A record of 8-20-6 left the Fire seven points short of Western Conference doormat Colorado and without a playoff appearance since 2012. To mend the wounds and heal the patient, Rodriguez hired Paunovic, who played one season with the  Philadelphia Union in 2011 before embarking on a coaching career with the youth teams of his native Serbia that yielded a FIFA U-20 World Cup title last year.

The roster is already markedly different and more changes are on the way. Paunovic and Rodriguez have been shopping the European marketplace for centerbacks, a section of the team left thin by the offseason departures of six defenders, including Jeff Larentowicz, who signed with the Galaxy as a free agent. The attack must replace forward Mike Magee and winger Patrick Nyarko, who were traded to L.A. and D.C., respectively. Patrick McLain, formerly of Chivas USA and Sacramento of the USL, is set to battle in goal with Johnson.

Vincent’s surprise U.S. callup -- he got the news on the team bus after playing his first game at the adidas MLS Players Combine in Florida and immediately departed for Southern California -- and impressive display against Canada have sparked hope and excitement among Fire fans.

He’s just one piece of a very jumbled puzzle in the backline, however; the list of incoming players includes SuperDraft pick Jonathan Campbell, international defenders Joao Meira (Portugal), Johan Kappelhof (Netherlands) and Rodrigo Ramos (Brazil), MLS veteran Michael Harrington (signed as a free agent), and Homegrown signing Joey Calistri, a forward by trade who played right back in the team’s first preseason game last Saturday against the University of South Florida.

Calistri’s deployment is a clear sign that Paunovic and his staff are quite willing to mix things up as the squad takes shape. “In the technical staff we had a discussion about where he can fit the best for our squad,” said Paunovic in a conference call with reporters Monday. “Trying him in that position during the sessions in the preseason he proved that he can play there. We want to find the best position for him and obviously we have to see that in the game.”

Also in camp are veteran midfielder Nick LaBrocca (signed as a free agent); former Quakes, FC Dallas, and RSL attacker Arturo Alvarez (on trial); and Chicago Fire academy product Mauricio Pineda. The younger contingent includes 2015 SuperDraft pick Kingsley Bryce, who didn’t play for the first team last year, and Homegrown Players Collin Fernandez and Patrick Doody.

This work-in-progress takes its first test against MLS opposition Thursday in Tampa, with Paunovic monitoring closely those players who can step onto the field in March alongside returning regulars David Accam, Kennedy Igboananike, Gilberto, Harry Shipp and Michael Stephens, and the quartet called to the U.S. team. 

“I think we have a very, very good group so far,” said Paunovic, “and our veterans are helping a lot our youngsters to integrate and to catch the level that they have, because we believe players like Mauricio, like Colin, Kingsley, Doody, and others are the future of our team.

“We have on Thursday a game against Philadelphia which will give us another insight as to where we are at this point in preseason.”

Trading Trinidad & Tobago left back Joevin Jones, whose attacking zeal and diligence impressed fans and observers last year, to Seattle enabled Chicago to get Campbell with the No. 12 pick and also acquire allocation money.  Vincent arrived in Florida Monday ready to resume a hyperspace ride that has swept him from an NCAA College Cup title with Stanford in early December to the Combine, callup, and U.S. camp in January, to a whole new preseason with his new professional team.

“We were very happy to see him play the other day,” said Paunovic of Vincent. “Again, surprisingly but at the same time he deserved it because he did great at the camp. That’s how and why you earn the confidence of the coach. This is how all our youngsters have to understand and to do it.

“We’re expecting from him the same: be a humble and hardworking guy and with the talent he will provide us, we expect to have a really good prospect -- not only for us -- but for the Olympic team and even for the senior team.”

Vincent will draw much attention during preseason, as will his former Stanford teammate Jordan Morris with the Sounders. Vincent is one of several players on this roster with intriguing back stories.

Ramos was a member of the Brazilian team that lost in the U-20 World Cup final last summer to Serbia. He has arrived on loan from Coritiba after playing nine games for the first team.

“We think he’s a young player, a prospective player, and that having that possibility to have him with us gives him that opportunity and an opportunity to us to see if he can improve here at the next level and in the same time perform well for our team,” said Paunovic.

“He’s a fast player, he’s good on the ball, he has that Brazilian attacking mentality and attitude and that is what we are looking for. He is good defensively but at the same time he attacks very well after the recovery.”

Recovery is the primary goal in 2016. This is a big-market team that has been small potatoes -- one playoff appearance in the past six seasons -- for much too long, and to its credit has gone way outside the box to seek its future.

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