While the Chicago Fire starting lineup that finished last season remains mostly intact, head coach Frank Yallop and Technical Director Brian Bliss have been active this offseason, bringing 12 new players into the team since taking over late last year.
Two of the brightest shining newbies have come in the form of 22-year-old Harry Shipp and 20-year-old Benji Joya. The pair combined for three goals and an assist during the team’s preseason run causing Yallop to tell reporters at one point, “I’m not afraid to play young players.”
“I think that’s always something exciting to hear as a young player when you first come in,” Shipp told Chicago-Fire.com this week. “To know the coach at least is open to giving opportunities to the younger guys gives a certain confidence and lets us know there’s a chance for us.”
While they’re both finding success at the first team level, their paths to this point couldn’t have been more different.
A Fire Academy product, Shipp had spent each of the last four years active in the club’s PDL and Super-20 program, keeping his Homegrown status alive while playing collegiately at Notre Dame. His path to the Fire became clear in the last year as his leadership in the Fighting Irish’s NCAA College Cup championship run made him a shoe-in to join the club as a Homegrown player this season.
Joya's Fire arrival happened more by chance.
Having captained the U.S. U-20 team at last summer’s FIFA World Youth Championship, the San Jose, Calif., native was loaned by Mexican side Santos Laguna to MLS and was distributed to the Fire via weighted lottery that was entered by only two other teams. Just days after joining the club for phase 2 of training camp in Bradenton, Fla., Joya provided a stunning, late winner to in a 1-0 victory over D.C. United.
While Yallop pretty clearly defined what his first and second teams were during preseason exhibitions, the notable departure from his first choice 11 came just over a week ago, when both youngsters started in midfield in the team’s 1-0 defeat to New England.
“I really love the fact that he’s not afraid to play us and he’s proven it by starting me and Harry,” Joya said. “It’s obviously a big responsibility as younger players but it’s been earned because we’ve been working hard in preseason.”
Just three days away from the team’s season opener, both players seem likely to feature in the game day 18 that will face Chivas USA on Sunday where one or both could make their debut.
A Californian by birth, Joya is especially looking forward to the prospect of making his club debut in front of loved ones.
“I’m thankful that I got to travel with the team to LA and hopefully I get by debut. I want my family to see me play. I want them to be able to share that moment with me. Being in the same place where I can turn and see my family cheering me on would be tremendous. Right now I’m very excited to be down here already.”
If Shipp steps on the field Sunday, he would become the first Homegrown player in Fire history to make a competitive first team debut and he admits it would be a definite milestone in his career.
“A debut is always special,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s home or away, it’s something I’ve dreamed of since I realized I wanted to go pro in high school. I’ve been working everyday towards that moment. Hopefully this year isn’t just about a debut but a very successful rookie season for me in this team.”