During first half stoppage time of last weekend's 2-2 road draw against Toronto FC, Chicago Fire rookie Jeremiah Gutjahr -- playing at left back -- recovered the ball in his own half. The 21-year-old picked up his head, recognized CJ Sapong's diagonal run 40 yards ahead, and pinged a ball over-the-top for Sapong to control and coolly level the score heading into halftime.
The assist was Gutjahr's first at the professional level, and came in his second consecutive start after debuting on March 30 against the New York Red Bulls. When Gutjahr -- a 2019 Homegrown signee -- was included among head coach Veljko Paunović's starting XI for that match, he became the 13th Fire rookie to make his professional debut since the 2016 season, a total that leads Major League Soccer over that span.
The Indiana product's first pro minutes are a continuation of Paunović's willingness to give his younger players time when deemed ready. Gutjahr follows in the footsteps of five players -- Mo Adams, Diego Campos, Elliot Collier, Jon Bakero and Grant Lillard -- who made their debuts for the Fire as rookies in 2018.
Among the rookie debutantes, key contributors have emerged. Homegrown signing Djordje Mihailović -- who made his first professional appearance as a substitute in a 2-0 win against Real Salt Lake on March 11, 2017 -- has played in each of the Fire's first five matches this season (four starts) following his first call-up to the U.S. Men's National Team in January. In addition, Adams, Campos, Collier, and Lillard combined for 3,571 minutes as rookies in 2018.
"They all coached the Under-20 Serbian World Cup winning team," Mihailović said. "For them to come here with the ability to develop young players in a positive way… you see top Serbian players from their team play at the top clubs around the world -- the Bundesliga, the Premier League, wherever it is. For them to come when I was 16 [years old] when I was just in the academy was a great opportunity to learn what they want from a young player and what it takes for a young player to make it to the MLS level. For them to show that kind of belief in young players, 13 debuts as rookies shows a lot from the club and from them.”
Paunović had this to say following Gutjahr's debut against the Red Bulls two weeks ago, expanding on his approach to rookie players during his time in Chicago:
“You know very well that in our culture we say, do your best, try to learn from what we are teaching here and earn opportunities. We don't hesitate to put young players and players that didn't have a single minute in this league to play against a team with such experience like the Red Bulls today. We here internally work together with our guys, we want to give them the best protection and care and also tools to be successful. When they are ready, like I said today previously, when we have the cohesion, the necessary cohesion, we are good to give them the opportunity.”
The Men In Red are back at home Friday night to take on the Vancouver Whitecaps at 7:30 p.m. CT (ESPN+ | TICKETS).