Last Tuesday I waited to walk back from the Toyota Park training field to the locker room with a trialist that had just finished a spirited session. Just as he looked set to join me for the five minute journey, he was delayed by a gaggle of young autograph seekers, there to grab a Castillo or Ljungberg signature, but also willing to snag any other player they could get to put pen to paper.
Surprised at the attention, the player went ahead and granted each request before we headed off.
I immediately posed the first question of my impromptu interview, “Have you ever signed an autograph before?”
“No,” he chuckled. “I guess I’ll have to practice.”
The player was none other than Victor Pineda and today you’ve finally heard of him.
Earlier Tuesday the Bolingbrook, IL product became the first home grown player to sign for the Chicago Fire first team under Major League Soccer’s Home Grown Player Initiative set in place in 2007.
“Today is very rewarding,” said Pineda. “I’m proud of all the hard work I’ve put into the last couple years, basically since I’ve started playing soccer. Becoming a professional player has been my aspiration since I started playing soccer and I’m now looking forward to the challenges that come with my new position.”
It’s been a whirlwind summer for Pineda, helping the club’s U16 Academy team to its first-ever U.S. Soccer Federation Development Academy National Championship in mid-July before being called up to the U.S. U18 national team for a four-game tour of Chile and Argentina a week later.
“Playing a lot of games this summer -- moving from the U16s to the U.S. U18s really helped prepare me for this step. I started training with the first team almost as soon as I got back from South America and it’s all been helpful in keeping me sharp.”
Having been in the Fire system since age 12 through the club’s Juniors program, the past two weeks weren’t the first time Pineda has trained with the likes of Brian McBride and Marco Pappa. The attacking midfielder was a part of the U18 Academy’s trip with the first team to Guadalajara in preseason earlier this year.
“The great thing about this signing and the homegrown idea in general is that in Victor you have a player that’s already seen the way the club is,” said Fire Director of Player Development John Dorn. “We molded the player in the Fire way, he grew up with the badge on his chest and he’s going to continue to wear it – from a club standpoint that’s huge. He’s trained with the first team in Mexico, he’s trained next to them during some of the Academy season here and he’s trained with them now in preparation of this signing. He’s familiar with them as they are with him.”
The signing also stands as an accomplishment for a club that has seen a number of developed players slip through its ranks over the years and through no fault of its own. As 10 year members of the USL Premier Development League, the Fire have stood as onlookers as other MLS teams selected players that spent time in their youth set up through the MLS SuperDraft.
That all changed under the league’s 2007 Homegrown Player Initiative. Now the club is able to keep players that have spent two years in their development system, allowing players they’ve help grow the ability to bypass the draft and sign directly with the club.
Dorn credits the club’s ownership for pushing the player development setup to a point where a signing like this could be achieved.
“Today you’re seeing the fruits of what we’ve been working on for so long. The way the club philosophy has evolved under Andrew Hauptman’s ownership, into a ‘one-club’ philosophy – Victor’s gotten a taste of what that means but players that come after him will experience it much more.”
Another person helping Victor with the transition from the Academy to the first team is Academy head coach Larry Sunderland. Like Dorn, Sunderland has long been involved in Chicago Fire player development, heading up the PDL and Super-20 teams in addition to his Academy role. Sunderland was named a first team assistant coach during preseason, providing a natural connection from the player development side to the club’s MLS team.
”I’m certainly proud of Victor in terms of where he’s come from and where he’s going,” said Sunderland. “He’s exactly the kind of player you want to move up to the next level because we’re not pigeonholing him into a position when he moves up. He’s very versatile, so it’s going to be a case of seeing where he works best at the next level and where the first team feels most comfortable with him.”
Following two weeks of training Pineda has become a regular with the team, with the players, some 20 years his senior, welcoming his addition to the side.
“Everyone’s been really great about me coming in. They’ve welcomed me and helped me out during practices. It was kind of strange training with Freddie Ljungberg and Nery Castillo but they’re my teammates now and being around a guy like Brian McBride just helps you grow. Every time we train, every time there’s a break, he’s always there trying to help me out, giving me comments on how to improve.”
A veteran of three World Cups, 96 international appearances and nearly 500 professional matches, McBride is excited for the newest addition to the team.
“He’s an exciting young player,” said McBride. “Victor’s been a part of this organization for a while now. To see him come through and get this chance is great. I think he has an abundance of attributes that are not only going to progress but are showing good right now. It’s a tremendous opportunity for him and we’re looking forward to working more closely with him.”
Pineda will be available for selection for Wednesday night’s clash against the New England Revolution at Toyota Park.