(Editor's Note: Last week, we looked at the St. Louis Lions of the USL PDL. This week, we take a look at Chicago's PDL clubs.)
Hypothetically, five years from now, could the Chicagoland area have soccer clubs at the first, third and fourth highest levels of the American game?
In a perfect world, that's Todd Short's vision.
Short is the founder of the Chicago Inferno, a soccer club about to start their inaugural season in the United Soccer Leagues Premier Development League (USL PDL), the fourth highest level of soccer overall and the highest level of amateur soccer in North America. And Short is already looking at options to take the club to even greater heights.
"I'm already running budgets for USL PRO," says Short prior to an exhibition match with the St. Louis Lions. "I'm already making the unabashed and guilt-free claim about how that's the direction where we're headed."
USL Pro is currently the third highest professional level in North America behind Major League Soccer and the North American Soccer League (NASL). Currently, the only city that boasts both MLS (LA Galaxy and Chivas USA) and USL PRO (Los Angeles Blues) franchises is Los Angeles. The LA/Southern California area also has five PDL franchises as well as a sixth California franchise in Fresno.
Short says he's aware this move won't happen overnight.
"I'm not saying tomorrow, I'm not saying next season, but we're definitely doing things to work towards that end," he said.
Short says the Inferno are aware of the numerous challenges that lie ahead. With every major sports league represented in Chicago, convincing fans to attend games at Wheaton College could be a tough sell at first. Also, Chicago is home to a number of semi-pro leagues, such as the National Soccer League (NSL), which pays players, so convincing the players to forego that can be a challenge.
Then there's the fact that the Chicago Fire already have their own PDL team that has sustained a high level of success in the area. That club is officially known as Chicago Fire Premier (CFP), and they'll be playing alongside the Inferno in the PDL's Great Lakes Division.
Short says he doesn't view the CFP as a threat. In fact, he says he thinks the two clubs can help each other.
"We can be enemies or whatever you want to call it on the field, but the bottom line from a business standpoint is that they're trying to build soccer and we're trying to build soccer," he said "We're trying to push these guys on to the next level and so are they, so there's a lot in common."
The Fire's Academy Manager Mark Spooner says he feels the same way.
"I think it's a good thing for Chicagoland soccer," says Spooner. "I think it takes time for any new club to develop that rivalry with the Fire, but I think that over the course of time, I think it could turn into a good friendly rivalry."
It appears the clubs will be able to co-exist due to changes in the CFP's recruitment of players.
"We've changed the way we run our PDL program this year to incorporate our home grown players," says Spooner. "Basically, it's a home grown list of players eligible to sign."
The Fire signed two homegrown players in the past two years in Victor Pineda (2010) and Kellen Gulley (2011). Spooner says he wants to focus more on using the PDL matches as a chance to give more experience to those players as opposed to college players, who are subject to being lost through the draft.
This past January, CFP had 11 players drafted in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft. Of those 11 players though, the senior Fire club was only able to draft one of them. That player was former Louisville defender Austin Berry, who was selected with the ninth overall pick. Berry made his first start with the club this past Friday against Chivas USA, scoring his first-ever MLS goal. The club also selected another former CFP player Tony Walls in the supplemental draft.
Spooner says that having the opportunity to help CFP players join the senior squad is perhaps his biggest accomplishment in his time with the club.
"Seeing any of the players move on to the MLS or Europe or wherever it is, is a great accomplishment," he says. "But in particular, seeing those two come back to the Fire First-Team and playing for the Fire is wonderful."
(The Fire were the first MLS organization to have their own PDL club, but now the Portland Timbers, the Seattle Sounders and the Vancouver Whitecaps also have U-23 clubs that compete in the PDL as well)
Short says he talks regularly with Spooner, exchanging business ideas and other information with each other. Short even claimed he'd be willing to let the Fire have one of his players if the opportunity was right.
"Maybe there's somebody that the Fire will say, ‘Hey, we want to take a look at that guy,' I'm not going to say no," said Short. If it makes sense for them to go play for the Fire PDL team, I'll say they can have them."
By contrast, the Inferno have, in Short's words, become the "best of the rest" while looking to establish itself as a possible second pro club in Chicago.
"I'm not going to compete in that youth sector that the Fire is so big in," said Short. "So when the Fire said they're going to go homegrown, I'm like, ‘look, now we're not even going to be fighting for the same players.'"
It should be noted that Short ran the CFP team until June 2011. He started his club as Inferno SC in 2009, competing in the aforementioned NSL until 2010 when he joined the Fire. After the 2011 CFP season, he left the Fire to pick up where he left off with the Inferno.
If there was any bad blood between Short and the Fire organization, it seems to have blown over at this time.
"I think the timing was bad because I had a lot of energy, a lot of vision and I wanted to do a lot of different things," said Short. "The Fire just weren't in a position to let me just do what I do, and I'm not a patient enough person to just bite my tongue and wait for it to come around."
Spooner says there's no animosity of the Fire's end.
"I think he had a vision for what he wanted to do on a different level that didn't quite fit into what the Fire's plans are," he said. "I don't know that he left on bad terms, but he wanted to do his own thing and there are certainly no hard feelings on the Fire's end."
Coaching the Inferno in their first PDL season is Branko Savic, who played professionally in his native Serbia as well as with the Chicago Storm of the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL).
Savic coached Inferno SC when the club was competing in the NSL in 2009. Now Savic and Short have reunited for the Inferno's first season in the PDL.
He admits it is difficult to attract talent in the Chicago soccer scene when competing against clubs that pay their players.
"It makes our job more difficult because all of the talented players can make $150-200 a week playing amateur soccer without having to practice three times a week, travel to the games and everything," he says. "So when it's between us and them, unless they are young and want to pursue that MLS career, they usually decide to go with the amateur teams that pay them."
Regardless, Savic says one of the Inferno's main goals is player development.
"Our goal is to get the college-level guys, or maybe even prior to college, and try to develop them and then push them to the next level," he said.
Savic says he believes in Short's ability to build a franchise from the ground up.
"I remember in 2009, when we started and our amateur team was doing well, he was already talking about PDL and going to the next level," says Savic. "So don't be surprised if in about two years, we end up in USL PRO or something higher than that."
Short is aware of the symbolism that comes with the Inferno's name, and he hopes to build on a strong Chicago soccer landscape.
"My office is by UIC, which is the Flames, my original partner was a firefighter, and the MLS team is the Fire, so I like that loose affiliation with the team."
The Inferno and Chicago Fire Premier are scheduled to face off for the first time on Wednesday, May 30 at Toyota Park.