Many young players have come of age while playing with the Chicago Fire over the years.
U.S. World Cup veterans DaMarcus Beasley and Carlos Bocanegra spent four seasons with the Fire before making high-profile moves to Europe with PSV Eindhoven and Fulham FC respectively. More recently, Bakary Soumare and Chris Rolfe made the move abroad after going from talented rookies to potential game changers for the Fire.
All of the aforementioned players came through some sort of U.S. developmental system to thrive for the club, but current Fire midfielder Marco Pappa took a different path to Chicago.
Earning his first MLS All-Star selection last Tuesday, Pappa began his professional career at 16 when he signed for Guatemalan power CSD Municipal. A relative unknown to U.S. fans at the time of his loan signing with the Fire in July 2008, MLS followers got a preview of things to come when the 20-year-old made his international debut in a 1-0 World Cup qualifying loss to the United States in Guatemala City just three weeks after joining the Fire.
“I came to the United States to learn and improve as a player,” said Pappa. “The level of play here in the U.S. is much better than home – it’s faster and has more technique. “I wanted to come here to play against better competition every day, so I took my chance with the Fire to do that.”
Having played sparingly during his first half season in Chicago, Pappa began to make his mark on the Fire lineup in 2009, as one of three players to appear in all 30 regular season matches while tallying five goals and four assists as he played in a supportive offensive role with the likes of Brian McBride, Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Chris Rolfe.
Following the season, the Guatemalan international signed a permanent deal to stay in Chicago through the end of 2012.
If Pappa made his mark in 2009, then 2010 should be considered the Guatemalan international’s breakout season. Picking up the slack with the departures of Blanco and Rolfe, Pappa surpassed his 2009 goal mark and equaled his assist total 12 matches into this season, netting six goals and four assists. More stunning, three of his strikes this season have come from outside the 18-yard-box.
What has been the difference this year?
“I’ve tried to work hard and give my best on the field in every match. I think 2009 was a good season for me – I played a lot of games and a lot of minutes. This season’s been better because I’ve been here for over a full year and I’m more comfortable with my surroundings and my teammates. That has allowed me to focus solely on football and so everything has been much better.”
One of the most skilled players on the Fire roster, Pappa has played all over the Fire midfield this season in order to accommodate different formations and lineup changes.
“I try to do my best in all positions. Last season I played mostly on the right side and I do feel more comfortable there, but we are all professionals here. For me if the coach needs me in any position, I’ll try to do my best for the team and play where I’m needed.”
Wherever the 22-year-old attacker has played this season, he’s been dangerous, scoring four goals in the month of June and being responsible in some way for 10 of the Fire’s 18 strikes through the first half of the season. Pappa has twice celebrated his goals with some electric acrobatics, doing back flips following his goal in the home opener against San Jose on April 10 and more recently after his second against Colorado at Toyota Park on June 9.
“My two older brothers were both gymnasts and when I was young they would teach me to do flips. After I score goals, especially at home, I feel pretty excited and so I do them sometimes.”
It’s still unclear if the coaching staff approves of the exuberant celebration though, Marco jokingly says they’ve told him to be careful.
If he keeps up the pace from the first half of the season, Pappa will become the first Fire player since Damani Ralph in 2004 to score double-digit goals in the regular season.
He also should have at least two more back flips left in him before year’s end.