2022 MLS season: With their new developmental side, Fire prospects have bridge to first team

Under sporting director Georg Heitz and technical director Sebastian Pelzer, the Fire have invested heavily in youth.

Now, their prospects have somewhere to play that’s run by the Fire.

Formally announced last year, MLS NEXT Pro began play earlier this spring and is a 21-team league including 20 development sides affiliated with MLS clubs. Coached by Ludovic Taillandier with franchise legend Patrick Nyarko on the staff as an assistant, Chicago Fire II plays their home matches at SeatGeek Stadium.

“The kids are responding well. They are excited, of course,” Taillandier told the Sun-Times. “We’re starting a professional league; it’s like a dream come true for all of the young players.”

In the past, the Fire loaned players out to lower-division teams for extra game time or injury rehab, which some perceived as a disadvantage against clubs that owned and operated their reserve sides that competed in the minor-league USL.

That isn’t necessary now, so Homegrown prospects — such as goalie Chris Brady and midfielder Sergio Oregel Jr. or first-round pick Kendall Burks — can play in a competitive environment under Fire eyes and in roughly the same 4-2-3-1 formation used by coach Ezra Hendrickson.

“The benefit is the communication on the curriculum of the academy, on the style of play,” Taillandier said. “We are able to [have] coffee with the first-team staff every morning. We are very, very connected on a daily basis. That’s a great advantage.”

Fire II also could be advantageous for a player such as defender Carlos Teran, who missed the first month of the season with an injury but played 39 minutes Sunday for Fire II in their 1-0 loss to Columbus. Fellow first-teamers Jhon Espinoza and Chinonso Offor haven’t played big roles for the MLS team this year but have gotten minutes for Fire II. Espinoza parlayed his 90-minute run in the Fire II opener — a 2-0 loss at Orlando on March 26 — into a 29-minute appearance last Saturday against FC Dallas.

And as Taillandier mentioned, key members of the Fire staff don’t need reminders about the value of a strong second team. Hendrickson and assistant Junior Gonzalez ran a second team before the birth of MLS NEXT Pro.

“Fire II is a very important aspect of what we do here,” Hendrickson said. “It’s to bridge that gap for some players that we see potential but maybe they are very young, very inexperienced, and if they can get games to help them improve and develop, that’s very important.”

One of the best examples of development is Fire defender Wyatt Omsberg. Now firmly entrenched as the starting right center back, Omsberg was loaned out to lower-division sides when he was with Minnesota United.

Those experiences were critical for his growth and confidence, and he thinks Fire II could have the same impact on Fire youngsters.

“We have obviously a very young team, a lot of the Homegrowns are 18, 19, 20 years old, so it will be really important for them to take advantage of those games and continue their development,” Omsberg said. “It’s kind of a perfect spot for them where they will be able to show what they can do and help them adjust to a higher level.”

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