Just like the vast majority of neutrals around Major League Soccer, Raphael Wicky didn't know a ton about academy talent and University of North Carolina standout Mauricio Pineda this winter.
Wicky had a vast amount of information to assimilate when he was named Chicago Fire FC head coach at the end of December, all the while having to begin planning his first preseason with the club and provide his input to the new front office on potential additions to his squad. Pineda was in talks to sign a Homegrown deal with the club, but it took some time to complete the deal. There was even trade interest from other MLS clubs seeing what it might cost to get his rights. Still, right about the start of preseason,Pineda officially became a member of the Fire.
It wasn't long before Wicky took notice of his the new player at his disposal. Pineda was among the league's most pleasant surprises over first two games of the season, going the full 90 on both occasions before the league's suspension of play in mid-March. Four months later, he's turning heads yet again at the MLS is Back Tournament, picking up where he left off by leading the Fire to a 2-1 win over reigning MLS Cup champions Seattle Sounders.
"To be honest, I didn’t know much about Mauricio," Wicky admitted after the Fire's win over Seattle. "Obviously I saw a few video clips, but then as soon as we started (preseason), I saw the potential, talent and work ethic he had. He’s surprised a lot of people.”
Welcome to your new-look Chicago Fire FC.
Pineda is one of 17 new players added to the Fire's squad since the 2019 season culminated with the club missing the playoffs for the sixth time in the last seven years. Though an intriguing prospect, he was far from the most heralded of additions. Chicago brought in three Designated Players: Robert Beric, Gaston Gimenez and Ignacio Aliseda. Beric was the only one signed in time to have a big impact on their first two games, while Aliseda has yet to debut.
Beric has produced as intended, now with two goals in three starts and solid hold-up play to boot. Gimenez, in merely 117 MLS minutes, looks like the real deal as a defensive midfielder. Aliseda, just 20, is still waiting to show his quality. Those big signings were supplemented by other players expected key contributors like Alvaro Medran, Luka Stojanovic, Boris Sekulic and many others.
The plan is beginning to come together.
"I’m happy I scored but I’m happier we won this game," Beric said. "We got our revenge. We lost the last time [vs. Seattle] in the last minute, we wanted revenge in this game.”
Chicago debuted a new formation against Seattle on Tuesday morning, playing a 5-3-2 after starting the first two matches in March — including the loss Beric alluded to — in a back four. Pineda played an impressive two-way game on the backline, even popping up with a goal and an assist. He led his team in completed passes and completion percentage (min. 10 passes). Gimenez sat in front of the back line, helping dictate possession with the center backs while allowing his fellow central midfielders, like the more creative Medran, and wingbacks push forward in attack.
These are the starters' average positions in the win over Seattle. Pineda (No. 22) was the most central of the defenders, on the ball most often. Gimenez (No. 30) anchored the midfield three, as Medran (No. 10) and Herbers (No. 21) pushed forward.
“It was my objective in January to be flexible and play multiple systems, a back four and a back five," Wicky said. "I played in the Champions League with Basel in a back five, I wanted to have this option here as well. It depends what players you have on your roster but I knew once we had our full roster complete, we could play both of these systems.”
The system worked to great effect in their first go at it, a feat made even more impressive considering that it was the Fire's first game in more than four months. They were originally slated to be in Group A and open tournament play against Nashville SC, before the expansion side was withdrawn from the tournament. Their opening game was canceled, and their schedule and slate of opponents completely changed as they moved over to Group B.
There weren't many signs of rust or heavy legs, bar a few players going down with cramps in the stifling Orlando heat in the second half. One of those players was man of the match Pineda, who needed a moment to stretch his calves immediately after celebrating his game-winning goal.
“I think my celebration was a little too hard, I should have taken it a little easier," Pineda said with a laugh.
That's a piece of advice Wicky can get behind, as he pumped the brakes on excitement around the squad in his postgame press conference.
“This was just the first step," Wicky said. "It’s good to start with a win, but we have two more [group] games. We have to keep working hard. It’s very important that everyone knows this is just the first step.”
It's only his third game in charge, after all, and just their first win. They've had a few impressive performances along the way, but they still have a long way to go and grow. Still, if beating the champs is just the first act, then it's time to get used to the new-look Fire.