When he last wore Chicago Fire red, Kellen Gulley was a kid.
The 19-year-old didn't always play as hard as he needed to during his first full season in MLS last year, and he became disengaged when he knew he wouldn't catch a sniff of the gameday roster.
But during an up-and-down seven months with the Atlanta Silverbacks, with whom he'll play in Saturday's NASL championship against the New York Cosmos, Gulley thinks he's made major headway toward becoming an adult.
“I kind of let my mentality drop [in Chicago], I got really depressed because I wasn't playing,” Gulley told MLSsoccer.com. “Coming here, I think I grew up a little more. I was a little childish in Chicago. You could tell by my mood that I was a little out of it because I wouldn't be on the roster that weekend.”
In Atlanta, Gulley is fighting for minutes, something he was hardly afforded during his first full year on the Fire in 2012, even in Reserve League play.
After coming into the season with a limp in his gait, which coach Brian Haynes attributes to a 2011 ACL injury that he never fully recovered from, Gulley began to come off the bench in late May. He played in five games in the spring season, scoring a goal against Real Salt Lake in the US Open Cup (pictured above) that sent that game to overtime.
He came off the bench five more times during the fall season before starting his first professional game last week against the Cosmos, when Haynes rested most of his starters.
Gulley hasn't received the playing time he expected. Haynes partly attributes that the NASL's structure, in which every game is crucial to the season as a whole. But there's still an issue with his attitude, Haynes said, which is something that then-coach Frank Klopas mentioned last preseason.
“I really see a lot of upside in the kid, but for him to really play at the next level, his thinking has to be different,” Haynes told MLSsoccer.com. “He has a great first touch of the ball. He also has great vision, and he's a great passer of the ball ... I think he has a lot to offer. Day in and day out, the attitude, if that changes, there a lot of upside to him.”
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What Haynes attributes to an attitude issue at the beginning of his Atlanta tenure, Gulley seems to attribute to being a shy kid. Gulley said he was uncomfortable at first during his first extended stay away from one of his parents or an adult guardian – his mother moved with him from Jackson, Miss., to Chicago after he signed a Homegrown contract. He was new on the team, and fitting in was difficult.
“Being the new guy on the team, I was more of just an observer,” he said. “I'm shy in the beginning, so I think it makes it even worse. I think it took me longer to get in because of my shyness.”
The Fire have a two-year team option this winter, Gulley said. If they choose to pick it up, he hopes he can surprise some of his old teammates during preseason.
“I hope that some of the players [in Chicago], the veterans that were there when I was there see that I've grown up a little,” he said.
First, he has a game to play. Haynes said that he may bring in Gulley if he needs a late goal because, while he hasn't always shown it, the teenager has the ability to change a game. To do that on a regular basis like Eddie Johnson, who Haynes coached for five years as an assistant in Dallas, his motor may have to change.
“The difference with Eddie was that he realized that he couldn't take anything for granted. He had to make sure that he worked for everything he had,” Haynes said.
“The hunger has grown, because I saw [Gulley] take things upon himself to make sure he got himself into shape that he needs to be in, not just to play here, but to play anywhere. At the same time, his thinking, as far as I'm concerned, has hindered him because he thinks that things are easier than they are.”