Lugging soccer bags around airport terminals has become common practice for Collin Fernandez. The game has taken the Chicago Fire Academy U-18 standout, who has been with the club since he was 13, around the world and back in the last year.
Academy tournaments across the country, U-17 National Team Residency in Bradenton, Florida, U.S. Soccer National Combine in Portland, Oregon, and even to Azerbaijan last May.
“It was quite an experience to see the different cultures, play against players from other countries. I thought I matured a lot as a player,” Fernandez said as he waited to board his next plane with the Chicago Fire Academy.
After earning Player of the Week honors from the U.S. Soccer Development Academy for his play at the end of September against Chicago Magic PSG, Fernandez and the Fire Academy traveled to Denver last weekend for the 2013 Generation Adidas Cup against other MLS Academy clubs. Fernandez notched a goal and two assists as the Fire lost two tough games in penalties to Houston Dynamo and F.C. Dallas, before beating Sporting KC 6-1 in a friendly.
Maturity is a key word for Fernandez, a 5’8”, 140 pound attacking midfielder from Downers Grove. Just 16, he is one of a handful of players in the Academy playing up with the U-18’s.
“He’s an aggressive player, with or without the ball,” said Academy Director Larry Sunderland. “He’s not afraid to get stuck into a tackle and he has a little bit of a nasty streak to him. When he does have the ball he likes to go at people. Like all of our players, he is very comfortable on the ball and understands the game.” Fernandez plays well in tight spaces and has the vision to dictate play from a central position.
Fernandez’s development in the Academy has propelled him onto the national scene, and earned him an invite to the U.S. U-17 MNT Residency program last spring in Bradenton, Florida.
Fernandez recalled the impressive facilities and first-rate coaching, but it wasn’t all fun and games in the sunshine state. For the first time in his life, Fernandez struggled to see minutes.
“I thought I matured as a player at Residency because I’ve never before hit that point where I wasn’t playing,” Fernandez said. “It’s really hard to overcome that.”
But Fernandez wouldn’t have to wait long for his chance. A couple of months later, he was invited to play with the U-17’s in a tournament in Azerbaijan.
Less than a minute into the opening game against Kyrgyzstan, Fernandez grabbed the first assist of the tournament, setting up teammate Brooks Lennon to put the U.S. on top 1-0. Fernandez followed that with another assist to Lennon twenty minutes later as the U.S. went on to a dominating 11-0 victory.
That type of resilience doesn’t surprise his coaches. “What sets Collin apart is his motivation and drive,” Sunderland said. “His competitiveness and his desire and drive is really what has gotten him to turn the corner from the time he was 13 when he was a good player, to where he is now being one of the premier players in the system.”
“That’s evident pretty much every day when he comes to training,” Sunderland added. “And I hate to just single him out because it’s certainly not just him, but for sure, he is one of the guys that every single day pushes the other guys and ramps up the training environment.”
That intensity within the Fire Academy has helped Fernandez develop in a number of key areas. “I think my movement off the ball has gotten a lot better from being here,” Fernandez said. “I make better decisions, even knowing when to dribble, knowing when not to. It’s really been great.”
Fitness is an area Fernandez targets in order to make the next step. His coaches say it’s just about being exposed to a faster speed of play and that will come with stiffer competition.
He said playing college soccer is likely his next step, but hasn’t decided where. For now his future will consist of more airport terminals, with every flight, training, and tournament an opportunity to move one step closer to his goal.
Fernandez puts that goal clearly: “I want to be a pro, that’s it. That’s what motivates me.” His coaches and teammates agree. The sky is the limit.
Tyler Day is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com.