51716_isi_campbelljonathan_mlsra0319163764 Robin Alam/isiphotos.com
Player Spotlight

Jonathan Campbell Seizes Opportunity with Chicago

The 22-year-old central defender from the University of North Carolina has made an impact early in his rookie year, earning steady playing time for a Chicago Fire team committed to rebuilding. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
May 18, 2016
7:30 AM

MORRISTOWN, N.J.—Some Major League Soccer rookies just have it good from Day One.

Last year’s Rookie of the Year, Cyle Larin, started for an expansion Orlando City team that featured former FIFA Player of the Year Kaka as well as a large and enthusiastic fan base. This year’s front runner, Jordan Morris, is the most anticipated rookie in the history of the league, a full national team player since college, and he gets to play in front of 40,000 Seattle fans—his hometown team.

Jonathan Campbell is not so fortunate.

Drafted by the Chicago Fire with the 12th overall pick in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft, the central defender from the University of North Carolina walked into a challenging, and decidedly unglamorous, situation.

The last two seasons under former head coach Frank Yallop were a downward spiral for the Fire, and the team devolved into one of the worst in the league. The club needed an overhaul, with new management and new players. Rebuilding is never easy and so far in 2016 hasn’t been.

“We play in Bridgeview and for us to get fans out there just shows we have a lot of support among some of those fans,” Campbell told American Soccer Now. “They're ready for it and it would mean a lot for the city to get back to the top. As tough as it is, we're on the right track. We're trying to rebuild something here.”

When Campbell was drafted, the Fire only had 14 players under contract and had recently hired Veljko Paunovic as its new head coach—his first gig at the professional level. The Serbian had recently led his country’s U-20 national team to a World Cup title and it became pretty clear from his resume that a youth movement was going to be underway in the Windy City.

Campbell, 22, has been a key part of that movement. He has played in every game this season and has started every match since the opener. In particular he has stood out with his smart positioning and the ability to read the game. This was clear in Chicago's 0-0 draw with Columbus and Campbell, playing just his third game, was named Man of the Match after holding Kei Kamara to zero shots in the game.
"It's amazing how intelligent and how well he's handling this first year as a rookie,"  Paunovic said after that game. "I truly believe he can be not only a very good player for Chicago Fire, which we all work on that, but also for the national team. I think he has that capacity to become a great player for this country."
It hasn't been a joy ride, however: The young Fire team is 1-4-4 so far and in its 2-0 loss to New Englandon Saturday, the club failed to register a single shot on goal. Despite the rough period, Campbell has been a bright spot and Paunovic sees the Greensboro native as a key part of his rebuilding effort.

“We are very happy, of course,” Paunovic said. “It's his rookie season and he's doing very well for the team. He's improving. He's able to keep his performance on a very high level and be one of our starters. That's very important on a team where you're in your first year as a professional player. A guy like that, everyone would like to have. We are lucky to have him.

"But we encourage him to keep working because there is a long way to go for him and for his team. He can be even better. He can improve. He can still give more, for sure. I believe his approach right now, his feet are on the ground, and it's something that he's doing very well.”

At the quarter-season mark Campbell has put himself into the rookie of the year mix alongside Morris and Philadelphia Union right back Keegan Rosenberry.

Lining up for a struggling team may not always be fun, but it did provide Campbell with an opportunity for playing time.

“It's been tremendous,” Campbell said. “There's been opportunities within all of it—either being on the top team or the bottom team. There are always different ways you can grow. Being through that rebuilding process is something to learn and you can take a lot away from that.

“You can tell with his Serbian team that [Paunovic] really relates to the younger guys,” Campbell said. “One thing that he's trying instill on us is being hungry at all times, staying motivated. Even though things aren't going the way we like, getting ready for the next game. He finds a way to motivate them. He’s very personable. That is one thing that separates him from other coaches in that he will reach out to all the younger guys and make sure they feel part of the group. That’s how he gets the best out of everybody. It’s building a culture where it’s a family.”

Off the field, Campbell is enjoying life in Chicago despite its many differences from his home state. He played all of his youth soccer and collegiate soccer in North Carolina, and prior to joining the Fire the only time he spent outside of the Tar Heel state was on a brief stint with Seattle’s U-23 team last summer.

After failing to standout in his mid-teens, Campbell began to turn it around in high school and a pivotal moment came when he began to receive call-ups to the U.S. U-18 national team. “With that advancement, it really drove me to want more,” he recalled

His uber-competitive nature is a defining characteristic.

“What pushed me was my friends,” Campbell said. “Having friends who, at the time, were much better than me at soccer, were on ODP teams and advancing while I wasn't. That's what pushed me. Then it was staying after it. That's what drove me in high school and then into college.”

Campbell eventually earned national accolades at UNC. In his freshman year, he was named to the College Soccer News All-Freshman team. By his senior season he was an NSCAA First Team All-American for a UNC team ranked No. 9 in the country. With a 3.92 GPA, the business administration major also was named a NSCAA Scholar first team All-American.

On Wednesday, the Fire will take on the New York Red Bulls and if Chicago wants to avoid falling further into last place, it needs wins. Campbell is optimistic that the Fire can find success this year, noting that every game this year except for Saturday’s 2-0 loss has been decided by one goal.

“Within one game you can change the attitude and the mentality and take off,” Campbell said. “You look at NYCFC. Look at where they were at the very beginning of the season and now. It’s very early on and the points are pretty close. I wouldn’t limit ourselves and say we couldn’t do it this year. It just takes creating that environment. We’ve had spurts of it.

"I wouldn’t say we’re that far away from it.”

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