BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – After a tough start to the season, the Chicago Fire have shown signs of life in recent weeks, heading into Saturday’s home match against New York City FC unbeaten in their last four in MLS and in their last six in all competitions.
Aleksandar Katai, whose future in the club hangs in the balance with his loan from La Liga club Alaves set to expire on Sunday, has been one of the driving factors in Chicago’s uptick, recording a goal or assist in his last seven league games.
Another, less-heralded midfielder is also playing a key role. Second-year player Brandt Bronico has taken advantage of the first run of starts of his MLS career to add a much-needed dose of creativity to the Fire attack, recording four assists in his last five matches. He’s assisted in all four of his league starts, and, with a little bit better finishing, would have recorded a game-winning helper in Chicago’s 1-1 draw at Seattle last Saturday.
“It’s been amazing. I’ve had a lot of fun,” Bronico told MLSsoccer.com on Thursday. “Initially, I was a little anxious, a little nervous for my first start against Philly [on May 30], but once the whistle blew my instincts just kind of took over.”
Selected by Chicago with the 47th overall selection in the 2017 SuperDraft, the UNC-Charlotte product only played in four matches last season, recording just 53 MLS minutes while spending significant chunks of the season on loan to USL outfit Tulsa Roughnecks. This year began in similar fashion, but he’s been a regular presence in the lineup since the end of May, starting four of Chicago’s last five league matches and playing every minute of their Open Cup wins against Columbus and Atlanta.
The Fire have talked often about their need to sign a No. 10 this season. Bronico certainly won’t stop them from doing that, but his ability to play the final ball and keep possession has been valuable all the same, lightening the burden on central midfielders Bastian Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty.
“I think at the time, when we didn’t have the right fit there, he brought a lot,” said head coach Veljko Paunovic. “I think it was refreshing for the team that it wasn’t only Basti or Dax that can keep the ball and play with creativity or give pace to the game.”
“He gives us energy, he is physical, very strong, he has a good first touch, he can play a pass. He made some assists now and that’s his quality, he can really help the team,” added Schweinsteiger. “Now, especially the last game in Seattle, where he got voted to MLS Team of the Week, for him that’s great. It’s good to see that a good boy who believed all the time and who was working hard and stayed positive is now rewarded and has more minutes.”
A lighthearted presence in the Fire locker room, both Schweinsteiger and Paunovic praised Bronico for his willingness to ask questions of veteran teammates and Chicago’s coaching staff. Both said the 23-year-old has an atypical positivity about him that’s helped him through long patches without playing time, and both were happy that he’s started to carve out a niche for himself in MLS. Now, they’re looking for more. Bronico is too.
“I’m grateful for all my opportunities and the next thing is to try to get on the scoresheet,” he said. “Pauno has talked to me about that, to try to get into more goal scoring positions while at the same time being aware defensively. I just want to keep up my production in the assists and just try to get on the scoresheet next.”