It took a while for Chicago Fire FC and midfielder Mauricio Pineda to agree to a Homegrown contract this winter, but once both sides found common ground amid trade rumors, it's been full speed ahead for the former University of North Carolina star.
As the Fire made their complete brand and sporting transition this offseason, Pineda was one of the first reinforcements to arrive. He hit the ground running in preseason and, as a number of high-priced additions were officially acquired late in the winter, it was the 22-year-old Pineda who got first crack at starting once the MLS regular season rolled around. He dutifully turned in two strong performances in those two games.
Pineda's momentum was not derailed during the league's COVID-19 suspension, as he picked up right where he left off with performances in training that have caught the eye of head coach Raphael Wicky ahead of the MLS is Back Tournament starting next week.
"I don't like to talk about one player, but Mauricio Pineda has continued to train the way he played before [the suspension]," Wicky told reporters on a video conference call Tuesday. "He was a positive surprise for everyone. We were very happy with him before and very happy where he is now.
"I hope when he reads this it doesn't make him go to work less," he added with a laugh.
Pineda isn't the only player to impress since the Fire returned to full team training. The period has allowed some of those aforementioned high-priced additions like Designated Players Gaston Gimenez, Ignacio Aliseda and others get more sessions with their new team.
"These two and a half weeks of full team training gave a good chance to really get to know guys who hadn't trained with us a lot. Aliseda, Gaston Gimenez, Luka Stojanovic, Boris [Sekulic], Miguel Navarro. We got a better understanding of who they are. We knew them before, but they hadn't trained much with us before. A lot of confirmations."
After Pineda inked his contract in January, the Fire then signed a further five Homegrown talents to first team contracts, highlighting their commitment to youth. None of those five have yet to debut, but that may change for one or two in Orlando.
They'll only have Brian Gutierrez and Javier Casas with the group at the tournament due to squad registration. Chris Brady, Allan Rodriguez and Alex Monis will stay in Chicago or perhaps train with USL League One side Forward Madison. Talks are ongoing between the clubs, Wicky says.
"Guti and Casas are training well, they're available," Wicky said. "If I think they deserve to get minutes, they'll get minutes. They're 16, 17 years old. For them to actually train with us every day and now go make this experience is really great."
Behind that pair, another 16-year-old will be with the squad: Goalkeeper Gabriel Slonina. The highly regarded US youth international signed his Homegrown deal when he was 15-years-old and, while he'll be with the team in Orlando, don't expect to see him debut.
"Gaga is 16-years-old, he's a big talent and we're very happy with him," Wicky said. "Gaga is the future is the club, we all hope, but if nothing happens in Orlando, Gaga will not get minutes. That's just how it is."