By Jacob Klinger
MLS is three and a half years removed from signing its first Home Grown player under the new league rules that finally gave clubs a competitive incentive to develop their own talent. This summer Jacob Klinger will be checking in on Home Grown players from across the league to see who they are, what they're doing, how they got there, and of course, just what it is they'll be doing next.
When he was 3, Kellen Gulley’s parents signed him up to play soccer in the local rec league.
There, playing alongside his then-5 brother James, he got the first organized touches of a career that’s seen him score goals for both club and country. Yet the Chicago Fire’s first Home Grown signing learned the game more than 650 miles from Toyota Park: in Clinton, Miss.
Gulley’s athleticism has been a constant. He played two years ahead of his age group from ages 3 through 13. Despite his age, 18, Gulley is a well-travelled player. Drawing the beelines required to map out his travels thus far would raise the value of Bic’s stock. Beyond the road trips though, is a player who has transplanted and reinvented -- his life and game, respectively.
“When he was younger he didn’t really like it that much, but I’d be like ‘Yo, come outside and play’ and I would get him to play with me,” James Gulley said, “and then whenever he got a little bit older he started to like it more and we didn’t live far from our soccer field so we would just ride our bikes to the field, kick around, shoot and our parents would come out there too and shag balls for us. Just being out there made him want to play more.”
Done with his own tournament and the bounce house, obstacle courses and other carnivalesque fanfare surrounding the preseason friendly, the younger, then-10 Gulley looked on as the Fire beat the Metrostars 2-0. The match, played in Madison, Miss. on March 26th 2005, gave Gulley a rare in-person chance to see professional soccer. It also gave him a team of his own.
Previously an Arsenal and a Galaxy fan, the Fire offered a local connection. Justin Mapp, born in Brandon just half an hour from Gulley’s hometown of Clinton, nearly scored in the 23rd minute.
The next year the Fire announced the founding of Chicago Fire Juniors-Mississippi. The move was historic in that Chicago became the first MLS team to expand its youth development into the state. Gulley’s journey into fandom for the club was complete. He was 15, a fearsome turn-and-face striker and his journey as a Fire player was just beginning as he joined CFJ-Mississippi. That summer (2009) he came to Chicago for a week-long trial of sorts.
“I came up for a week or so to try out and it was -- for me, it was hard because I was only 15. I didn’t know any better, you know,” Gulley said.
During the tryout Gulley remembers being taken in well by current Fire players like Logan Pause and Patrick Nyarko. Yet after a week in Chicago, Gulley returned to Mississippi without an offer from the club. He might have been consoled knowing a pro club would continue to keep tabs on him, but by year’s end he had scored his first international goal: a 75th-minute defense-torching equalizer against Brazil's Under-17s.
It was the first of four goals Gulley would score for Wilmer Cabrera’s U.S. U-17s. Regular training and playing with the country’s elite talent did wonders for his game. While he credits technically sound training from his coaches back home for molding him into a national prospect, he was too often the best on his team and the best on the field in Mississippi. Bradenton forced him to work harder. On Skype calls home to James it became apparent where his career was headed.
“He went to residency and he kind of got treated like a pro down there,” (James) Gulley said. “They go to school for a little bit, but they’re at training every day, travelling, doing stuff like pros. I think that’s when he realized that he didn’t want to go to college and he wanted to play pro.”
During summers away from Bradenton Gulley continued to represent the Fire at SUM/Generation Adidas Cups in Denver against other MLS youth outfits. More goals on the international stage followed with a drawn penalty and a brace highlighting an opportunistic and dominating performance against Mexico in February of 2010. In June he scored what proved to be his last U-17 goal. This time away to Argentina.
“October 20th,” Gulley recalled after looking up the date he saved in his phone. That was the day in 2010 that changed most everything.
While training with the U.S. U-17s Gulley injured his ACL. The 16-year-old knee required surgery, forcing him to miss out on the 2011 U-17 World Cup.
Surgery and rehab hardened him mentally and physically. Forced to work just to an achieve an even stride, his comeback re-steeled him.
“He feels stronger, so he is stronger,” (James) Gulley said of his brother's improved psyche post-injury.
The work put into recovery directly addressed a weakness. “Technically he’s got it all,” Fire academy teammate and U.S. U-20 star Victor Pineda, said. But occasional lapses in work ethic were noted by Gulley’s brother, his friend Pineda and former Olympic Development Program teammate, Marcus Epps. All agreed that the injury improved his work rate.
On his return to the field, though, Gulley was initially hesitant in the more physical aspects of the game. He would shy away from tackles and feel uncertain with his back to goal. The player that once terrorized opposing defenses playing as a classic No. 9 needed reinventing.
So he refocused on his technical side. One and two-touch passing became a point of emphasis. Gradually, he regained his speed. His once-neglected combination play became a strength and he ignited his off-the-ball movement. Running at defenders came back to him, only now more so in combination than in solo efforts. His original strengths returned, too.
“He likes to check back for the ball,” Pineda, an attacking midfielder, said, “And he can always hold it for the team to get forward and obviously he can finish. He’s a good finisher.”
In his first game back it took him five minutes to score against the Galaxy youth stars at the 2011 SUM/Generation Adidas Cup.
That August, his patience was rewarded and his life further altered. The Chicago Fire called his mother. His mother called an agent. Gulley moved with his mom to Chicago and signed his first professional contract.
In a team with plenty of veteran forwards, first-team minutes are hard to come by, especially for a young player who sports his year of birth, 94, on the back of his jersey. In fact, Gulley has yet to play a competitive minute with the full team. Even playing time with the reserves is rare. Still, he and Pineda headline the Fire’s U-18 academy side. And easing the adjustment to Chicago, Gulley calls his fellow attacker his best friend.
The classic fine line of motivated impatience and understanding calm defines Gulley's current plight in breaking into the professional scene. Yet he is steadily reminded by both himself and his brother that minutes and hard work are essentials.
Like any striker, though. Gulley will ultimately be judged by his output in front of goal.
“It’s good to have a forward that, you know, is at another level than the rest of the people,” Pineda said.
Said Pineda on what sets Gulley apart from his peers: “Sometimes I know we have other forwards that maybe don’t finish many chances and I know he puts all the chances he gets, away.”
Jacob Klinger is a contributing writer to Soccer 365 where his column "Ready, Set, America" appears regularly. He also writes for No Short Corners and is currently a journalism student at Syracuse University. Jacob's love for the game goes back as far as he can remember, but was truly christened during the United States' cardiac qualifying campaign for Korea/Japan 2002. Between classes and columns, he still plays. You can follow him on Twitter @MrJacobK or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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