Published on February 21st, 2017 | by Ryan Voyles2
The Fire Has A USL Problem
The Chicago Fire and USL-side St. Louis FC have ended their relationship. Chicago has now moved on to what they must hope is greener pastures in Tulsa because the St. Louis experiment did not go very well.
The Chicago-St. Louis break-up was not an ugly one where the couple screams and fights in public at a nice restaurant. Instead, the break-up seemed more like partners who have become so indifferent to one another’s existence that the only reason they stayed together so long was because the lease on their shared apartment didn’t run out until early this year.
As part of the release, the clubs highlighted the nine players that the Fire sent down I-55 to play in St. Louis over the past two years. A quick glance at those players is a who’s who of ‘who?’
Kingsley Brice: No appearances on main club, waived last offseason.
Greg Cochrane: Semi-regular starter for tie-loving 2014 Fire squad, made only four appearances with main club in 2015 and is now with USL-side San Antonio FC.
Drew Conner: 12 starts for STLFC in 2016, no appearances with main club. Currently with Fire in camp (and making awesome plays in exhibition games.)
Patrick Doody: Showed well in seven appearances with Fire in 2015, but spent all of 2016 in St. Louis. Currently with Fire in camp.
Collin Fernandez: Improbably the longest-tenured member of the Fire, Made a total of 3 combined appearances for main club in past two years, only played seven combined games in past two years with Louisville City FC and STLFC. Currently with Fire in camp.
Alex Kann: Made one appearance with Fire in 2015, now plays for Atlanta United FC
Mike MaGee: Magic Mike had one appearance in STL while recovering from injury.
Patrick McLain: Made one appearance with Fire and STLFC in 2016. Now plays for Orlando City.
Alex Morrell: Four appearances for Fire in 2016, now with USL-side Tampa Bay Rowdies.
Only three of those players remain in the Fire organization, and none of them have a real clear future with the organization. Doody showed well during his time in STLFC, but he’ll turn 25 in April and has not played minutes in MLS in nearly 18 months. It is hard to tell whether his good showing this preseason will be enough for Paunovic to give him time come regular season.
Both Fernandez and Conner spent large parts of last season on the Fire bench last season and only Fernandez got some mop-up minutes.
Since the partnership with STLFC was announced in 2015, the only young players who have really made much impact have been Brandon Vincent, Jonathan Campbell, Matt Polster and the dearly departed Harry Shipp (Joey Calistri is the next tier down in that ‘at least he played some minutes with the Fire’). What all of them have in common is not one spent a single minute down with St. Louis, a combination of homegrown players and high draft picks. Outside Shipp, the Fire have struggled to develop a homegrown player into a regular contributor to the club.
While other teams have made the investments in their youth development program and into their own ‘minor league’ teams in the United Soccer League, the Fire have remained content to make small partnerships with lower-tier teams.
The new USL partnership with the Tulsa Roughnecks is fitting, as both clubs won their league’s respective wooden spoons. Tulsa was especially horrific last season, finishing with a 5-21-4 record and 15 points behind the second-worst team in the Western Conference – who just happened to be STLFC.
Fans can go on social media and rant and rave about what the Fire is doing in their youth development (and trust me, they already have), but little is expected to change in the immediate future. Rumors of a potential affiliate in Milwaukee have crept up here and there, but general manager Nelson Rodriguez has publicly shown little interest in moving toward owning and operating their own affiliation.
Fire fans could go on YouTube to find their youngest and brightest talents light it up in the Oil Capital. But if the past two years have shown us anything, it’s that such a venture would likely be a waste of time.
It is time for the Fire to find a way to bridge their rather successful youth academy to the main club.