BRIAN SCIARETTA - Wednesday, June 19, 2013
It has been a long and difficult journey for Victor Pineda this past U-20 cycle but after a series of injuries, the Chicago Fire forward is ready to make an impact at the Word Cup.

Pineda, 20, is now in Turkey with the U.S team as it prepares for its World Cup opener on Friday against Spain. He was recently with the team for the Toulon Tournament earlier in the month where the U.S lost to France, Colombia, and South Korea while defeating Congo.

Since then, the U.S has added some key players to its roster but Pineda feels that the team grew a lot during Toulon.

"It gave us a little more confidence than we thought we had," Pineda told YA. "Just to be able to compete with whatever team we had. France was a great team in the first game. I think the important thing is that the team grew a lot in those games and in the 10 days we were there. There was a big difference between the first and the last game. Now we're taking more steps before the World Cup to move forward."

The task ahead for Pineda and the U.S team is difficult as it was drawn into the "Group of Death" along with Spain, France, and Ghana.

Pineda is only focuses on the first game because he believes it will go a long way to determining if the U.S advances to the knockout stages. In the tournament's format, the top two teams from each group advance along with the top four third place teams.

"In any international tournament, the first game is the most important," Pineda explained. "You want to get off to a good start and we're going to try to win that first game. Spain is going to be a really good team."

The path to this point has indeed been a difficult for Pineda. For the first year of the cycle Pineda was a key player for U.S U-20 head coach Tab Ramos and was even the team's leading scorer in 2012. He is naturally right footed but was able to be effective in Ramos' 4-3-3 system playing as a winger on either side. Last November, however, he damaged the meniscus in his knee and that kept him out through March.

His first action following the injury was a U-20 camp in early April which was the team's first gathering after its successful World Cup qualifying campaign. In that camp, Pineda was playing well but suffered a sprained ankle which kept him out through May and into the Toulon tournament.

He has missed most of the past eight months with the injuries but he now feels healthy and ready to contribute to the US U-20.

For the Fire it is a different story as his extended absence has disrupted the progress he made last year. Due to the timing of his injuries, he has only trained minimally with his club in 2013. He has yet to make his professional debut and acknowledges it will be a challenge to do so this year.

"It's hard to tell because of the injuries," Pineda said of his expectations for a Fire debut this year. "I trained with them for two weeks in April then I had the U20 where I got injuries. I didn't train with the Fire in May and have been with the U-20s in June. It kind of all depends on how things go when I get back. It's going to be challenging because I haven't been part of the team for so long."

Pineda has been with the Chicago Fire since August 17, 2010 when he became the first ever homegrown player to sign with the club. He feels a responsibility from the faith the Fire have shown in him and wants to see others follow in his footsteps.

When he returns to the Fire following the World Cup, part of his attempt to contribute to the first team will be to help pave the way for other young players in the Chicago area.

"I'm proud of it and I'm happy I went through with it," Pined said of being the Fire's first homegrown player. "It holds a lot of responsibility just because I have to set an example for all the guys coming up through the Academy system. My brother is there. There're a lot of great players there. So I think it is part of my responsibility to set a good example. I want to be successful so that I can open the doors for them so they can be successful too."

The weeks ahead in Turkey will also go a long way to determining the confidence he has the remainder of the MLS season. The U-20 World Cup is one of the most important tournaments for young players with a vast array of media and scouts on hand at the games. In the past, many young American players have used the tournament as a springboard to launch their professional careers.

The U.S team has a difficult schedule ahead but Pineda is confident the team is coming together well as the opener draws close.

"It's been intense coming from Toulon with all the games," Pineda concluded. "It has been tough so far but it's been good. I think our team is always improving. You saw that in qualifying where the first game wasn't the best but the team got better. I think I could say the same with every camp. The team has been growing."

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