Forward Chinonso Offor still will be 20 when the season starts. Defender Jhon Espinoza turns 22 on Feb. 24, and winger Stanislav Ivanov doesn’t turn 22 until April 16.
No, these three players the Fire signed over the offseason aren’t mid-career professionals. But coach Raphael Wicky still is looking for them to play a part this year.
“Knowing that they’re all young, we see big potential in them,” said Wicky, who also included 20-year-old defender Carlos Teran in that group after he was signed last August. “I always say when you talk about potential, potential needs time, needs development and needs training. They need to train, they need to develop, and then they need a lot of time. I think that’s what we’re going to give them.
“I hope that they come in and contribute.”
Other than Offor, who figures to back up established striker Robert Beric, the new signings should have opportunities to start this season.
Espinoza could dethrone 2020 starting right back Boris Sekulic after Sekulic was left unprotected in the expansion draft but not selected by Austin FC, while the Fire have slots in the midfield that Ivanov could fill.
Any contributions from the newcomers could be key for the Fire after an underwhelming 2020 season that saw them miss the 10-team Eastern Conference playoffs. They’re going with the same three Designated Players as last season and didn’t bring in any new players with experience in MLS, one of the most unique and challenging leagues in the world. Outside of the young signings, the Fire are banking on improvement coming from within, fueled in part by continuity that was lacking in 2020.
Espinoza, Ivanov and Offor will get their chances to chip in, regardless of their age.
“They’re young and they have potential,” Wicky said. “We think they make our roster better and give us more depth.”
That young players will get opportunities isn’t surprising for a team that has made a concerted effort to find, sign and develop talent that hasn’t peaked. Last season, rookie Mauricio Pineda emerged as one of the team’s most important players while 21-year-old left back Miguel Navarro played 971 minutes over 19 appearances. Young Designated Player
Ignacio Aliseda, who turns 21 in March, started 16 games and played 1,402 minutes during an uneven 2020 season.
Under Wicky, it doesn’t seem like age is that much of a concern. And that goes both ways, considering the crucial role left back Jonathan Bornstein played last year at age 35 and could again after turning 36 last November.
“One thing that’s very important to understand as well: for me, there is not young or old,” Wicky said. “You’re either good or you’re not good enough. Jonny Bornstein is 36 years old and he is good. He played a lot of minutes [in 2020] and he will compete again. It’s not about age. We also have other players who are young and they are good enough.”