Enter 18-year-old striker Jhon Duran, whose fifth start for the Windy City side included a first-half brace to leapfrog Toronto in the Eastern Conference standings, taking 12th place and putting head coach Ezra Hendrickson's team just six points below the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs line.
It was the largest statement yet that Duran, acquired in January 2021 as the youngest international player signing in MLS history, agreeing to terms while a 17-year-old competing for Colombian side Envigado, has immense upside.
"This guy is a very talented player, he's very fast, very strong," said Hendrickson of the U22 Initiative addition. "So, he can be a very, very good forward in this league and can score a lot of goals, but he's also developing some parts of his game that obviously he's got to improve."
Duran couldn't join Chicago until this year, having to wait until he turned 18. He's coming along in his debut MLS season, now with three goals and three assists in 14 games (five starts) after spending much of the year as second-choice to offseason trade arrival Kacper Przybylko (from Philadelphia Union).
Duran's talents have caught the eye of midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri, the Swiss international captain who's played for storied clubs like Liverpool, Bayern Munich and more.
"I’m happy for him, I hope he can keep going like this," Shaqiri said. "He needs to stay also consistent now and try to stay on his toes and to learn from these games, too, what was not so good. This is important for him, too, to work hard in training and in the games, then, to deliver.”
Both of Duran's goals involved blowing past Toronto center back Chris Mavinga, who was subbed out in the 32nd minute due to what Toronto head coach and sporting director Bob Bradley called hamstring tightness.
On his first tally, in the 4th minute, Duran raced clear on a breakaway before tucking a left-footed shot past goalkeeper Quentin Westberg. Just 12 minutes later, he collected a beautiful flick from 19-year-old homegrown Brian Gutierrez, a US youth international standout, before once again showcasing his blistering pace to cash home near-post.
The latter highlight, especially, was a clear-eyed moment of the young talent on Chicago's roster.
"I've always said that Durán and Guti, especially, have a high ceiling, a very, very high ceiling," Hendrickson said. "And Jhon is getting an opportunity to play now and he's able to show that. Even though he didn't score last game against Columbus, he had a good performance. Now it’s just getting these guys up to 90-minute match fit because they just haven't been playing much."
Fighting for minutes
Asked about not playing as much earlier in the season, Duran was rather level-headed in recognizing the broader picture.
“It’s a healthy competition that we have on the team," Duran said. "Well, it's like waiting for your time, your moment and doing what you know how to do.”
Hendrickson stressed it's an ongoing process to onboard such a young signing from overseas. He said Przybylko was "brought here to start, to be our number one," which made making a change at the No. 9 spot difficult. And adjusting to MLS comes with its challenges.
"We can't just put players on the pitch unless they show it in training," Hendrickson said. "For a long time, Duran was catching up to the speed of play in training. So, he was struggling a bit in training, just keeping the focus, just being mentally there within a game, play within the team concept. So that too was keeping him off the pitch. But we felt like the time was right, a couple of games ago, to make the switch."
Hendrickson's not getting too far ahead of things, taking a cautious approach to Duran's development.
"The kid has done well, and I always tell them it's not a name game, it's about performance," Hendrickson said. "If you're not starting, how you do in training will get you minutes on the pitch. And when you get your minutes, if you do well, you stay on the pitch. It doesn't matter who you are, and everyone is held to that standard."
As the striker battle unfolds, Duran is focused on team goals. They've taken just 20 points from 20 matches (5W-10L-5D record), but have time to climb the table in pursuit of one of the East's top seven spots. Chicago's made the playoffs just once from 2013-21.
"As any player, we want to be in the finals and work to win the title but that'll come with work," Duran said.