January 13, 2017 isn’t a day Brandt Bronico recalls with a ton of enthusiasm.
“I remember driving to Charlotte to train because I didn’t get picked."
The first and second rounds of the 2017 MLS SuperDraft had come and gone without Bronico’s name getting called.
“It was tough," the Chicago Fire midfielder said. "A lot of anxiety was going through me, but I was like, ‘Ok, I’m just going to go train and we’ll see what happens.’”
Four days later, as the third and fourth rounds got underway, the then-21-year-old pulled into campus at UNC-Charlotte dismayed but not discouraged. Then he put his car in park.
“I started getting all these notifications saying congrats, and I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ because I didn’t want to watch it. I knew I would have been sweating. So when I saw that I was selected, I started tearing up in the car. I was so hyped. Then (the Fire) called me and I was super happy. It was amazing.”
The Fire had selected Bronico in the third round with the 47th overall pick.
Now a third-year pro, he has come a long way since that phone call. Last weekend’s match in New England marked a second-straight Saturday that Bronico reached a personal milestone in his young career.
The 24-year-old earned his 50th MLS regular season appearance in the Fire’s 2-0 win over the Philadelphia Union on Aug. 17, then followed it up by setting a new career high in single-season appearances with his 24th of 2019 against the Revolution last Saturday.
“When you’re leading up to a game, you’re just focused on that game,” Bronico said. “I just want to win the game. Then after when you reflect on it, you start thinking, ‘Wow, 50 games in MLS. That’s amazing. Who would have thought?’ With everything I’ve worked for and continue to work for, hopefully I can get to 350 games. It’s a milestone, but there’s a lot more that I want to accomplish with this team and in this league.”
Bronico’s 51 appearances are a significant accomplishment for the North Carolina native when considering his path to the Fire first team. As a late round SuperDraft selection, the odds historically were against the rookie midfielder to earn a roster spot.
First, the Fire's 2017 offseason had already seen an influx of established midfielders acquired to reinforce head coach Veljko Paunović's squad. Experienced MLS veterans Dax McCarty and Juninho were brought in, as was academy product Djordje Mihailović. Not to mention, German legend Bastian Schweinsteiger was soon to follow from Manchester United in March.
Second, over the last 10 MLS SuperDrafts, only 15 players selected at Bronico’s 47th spot or later (including the Supplemental Drafts in 2011 and 2012) have achieved 50 appearances or more in MLS play.
Of those 15 players, just four have come since 2013. The league’s increased emphasis on producing and signing academy players in recent years as well as the beginning of the Targeted Allocation Money era has made it more challenging for later-round SuperDraft picks to stick around and earn playing time.
Former Columbus Crew SC forward Adam Jahn (selected 53rd overall in 2013), FC Dallas’ Dominique Badji (67th overall in 2016), and Philadelphia Union’s Jack Elliot (77th overall in 2017) are Bronico's only contemporaries.
“It’s definitely an honor to make that many appearances while being in that small of a group,” Bronico said. “I just wanted an opportunity to get into an MLS preseason and to prove myself. I’m grateful that the Fire selected me when they did. I’m grateful they gave me a real shot and a real opportunity, and I’m happy I made the most of it.”
Now an entrenched member of the Fire locker room, Bronico has made significant progress in less than three seasons as a pro. From making four substitute appearances as a rookie, to starting 17 times in 23 appearances last season, to becoming a first XI regular as 2019 has progressed, the 24-year-old's mindset, er grindset, has evolved with him.
“I’m definitely a lot more mature now,” he said. “I know what it means to be a pro. 2017 rookie BB was a little timid and just following orders, and now I feel like I play a bigger role in the team. I’m kind of developing more of a leadership role with this club, which I’m extremely grateful for.
“I think (the Fire coaching staff) appreciate not only my hard work, but my mindset and my mentality behind how I approach every day, how I’m always positive in the locker room, and how I try to improve my game every single day."
With 51 appearances now behind him, Bronico cites an MLS Cup victory with the Fire and a U.S. Men’s National Team call-up as the next things on his personal to-do list.
“That’s what I strive for every single day on my list of goals, hoping one day that it’ll come true," he said. "I asked my dad, ‘What’s the best advice you’ve received from anybody ever?’ and he said to think from the end back, meaning take care of what you have to take care of today, and usually tomorrow takes care of itself."
In the immediate sense, Bronico is getting ready for the Fire’s road trip to Columbus to take on Crew SC this Saturday night (6:30 p.m. CT, ESPN+). With five games remaining in the regular season, Bronico and his teammates still believe in their ability to make a run for the postseason.
"It’s taking it one game at a time, one day at a time," he said. "We have to win if we want to have a realistic chance at making playoffs, so it’s taking care of what we can control and not worrying about what we can’t control with the other results."