Chicago Fire: An ode to homegrown star, Mauricio Pineda

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - MARCH 01: Mauricio Pineda #22 of Chicago Fire puts the ball into play during the first half of the match against the Seattle Sounders at CenturyLink Field on March 01, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. The Seattle Sounders topped the Chicago Fire, 2-1. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)
SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - MARCH 01: Mauricio Pineda #22 of Chicago Fire puts the ball into play during the first half of the match against the Seattle Sounders at CenturyLink Field on March 01, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. The Seattle Sounders topped the Chicago Fire, 2-1. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images) /

The Chicago Fire have started the 2020 season in promising fashion. A huge reason why is the emergence of homegrown star Mauricio Pineda, who has been immense in his first few professional games.

This all wasn’t supposed to happen so quickly for Chicago Fire homegrown Mauricio Pineda. Going into their season opener, the Fire knew they were in a bit of a pickle. They couldn’t have asked for a tougher contest to start the year as they went on the road to take on the Seattle Sounders, who were only happened to be the reigning MLS Cup champions.

Chicago also had roster issues to deal with. They had made some quality signings in the offseason but several of those players couldn’t play against the Sounders due to visa issues or other complications. The biggest absentee was Gaston Giminez, a central midfielder from Argentina who still needed to help out his former club Velez Sarsfield.

With Gimenez unavailable, Fire head coach Raphael Wicky needed someone to come in and play in the middle of the park. He turned to Pineda, who stepped up to the plate and delivered an incredibly promising performance. And then the 22-year-old proved he was no fluke in Week 2, putting in another strong showing on the road against the New England Revolution.

Some Chicago supporters never thought they would see a Pineda star for the first team. Back in 2010, Mauricio’s older brother, Victor Pineda, became the first-ever homegrown signing in Chicago Fire history. He had been a star at the youth level and was a shining example for the Fire academy. He even made a few appearances for the United States U-18 and U-20 teams, so there was plenty of hype surrounding his jump up to the senior level.

However, Victor never got his chance and suffered through several wasted years of his career on the Chicago bench, only making a few appearances in meaningless cup games. He eventually left the club and bounced around the USL and NASL for a bit but is now without a team.

While that was going on, Mauricio was excelling at the collegiate level. Playing for the University of North Carolina, Pineda was there for four years, becoming captain and playing every game for the school during his time there.

The future was unclear after his senior year. Pineda had previously turned down contract offers from the Fire and many assumed the same was going to happen this winter after rumors emerged that he was still upset with how the club handled his brother during his brief spell.

However, something must have changed his mind. Pineda joined the first team in January, signing a homegrown contract. Many were quick to applaud the Fire for getting the deal done, especially considering their track record with previous academy products like Cameron Lindley and Andrew Gutman. But there was new management in charge, and things seemed different already.

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At first, Pineda was just expected to be a role player. Chicago still had three open Designated Player spots left to fill. The bigger names were on their way. And the Fire also added the likes of Alvaro Medran and Luka Stanojevic. Pineda was a long way down the pecking order.

However, not everyone was available to start the campaign. And so, with others watching on, up stepped Pineda. He has been nothing short of superb in both games so far this season. Playing as the deepest option in a midfield three, Pineda is the link between the defense and the rest of the team. Constantly dropping deep to pick up the ball, he is responsible for keeping possession and supporting the backline when need be. He has executed these duties at the highest level.

The most impressive thing about Pineda is his composure. Having the ball so close to your own goal is always tough. There is plenty of pressure that comes with it. Any turnover in that area will lead to an easy chance for the opposition. That pressure doesn’t phase Pineda, however. He is confident enough to dribble out of tight spaces when need be, which is remarkable given his youth and senior inexperience, and also has the range of distribution to progress play with accurate, intelligent passes forward.

As someone who can play at center-back, it’s no surprise to see that he boasts terrific defensive instincts. Pineda has already flown into a few challenges during these past few games, and he ends up winning the ball back more often than not.

Chicago Fire, Gaston Gimenez
(Photo by Amilcar Orfali/Getty Images) /

Plenty of credit belongs to Wicky for believing in him. The Fire head coach could have just rolled out Michael Azira these past few games. He might not be as exciting, but he has plenty of experience and is a much more predictable option. But instead of playing it safe, Wicky took a risk by choosing Pineda, and he is now reaping the rewards.

With the likes of Giminez and Stojanovic now available for selection, it will be interesting to see what happens to Pineda. There may not be room for him in the midfield anymore, but he could end up dropping back to his more natural position in defense.

Midway through the second half of the New England draw, the Chicago Fire shifted to a 3-5-2 formation, with Pineda playing at the heart of the defense alongside Francisco Calvo and Johan Kappelhof. They looked much better as a result and grabbed an equalizer soon after. Wicky might be tempted to stick with that formation in Orlando, and if he does, Pineda is the perfect person to fill in as the most central defender.

Next. Chicago Fire Vs New England Revolution: 3 things we learned. dark

No matter what the future has in store, Chicago’s latest homegrown signing has proven himself at the professional level. And Wicky now knows he can put his faith in Pineda when the time comes.