Exactly two years ago on July 16, 2010, the Chicago Fire U16s won the U.S. Soccer Development Academy U15/16 Championship. In doing so, the Fire became the first academy team from a MLS club to capture a USSDA championship. The Fire U16s of this year were not favored to follow in the footsteps of the U16s of 2010 but they have made it to finals week. The story of the Fire U16s past, present and future is after the break.
U16s of Past
The 2010 U16 squad defeated Cal Odyssey 5-3 in a penalty shootout to take the championship. That team was led by Keaton Albert, Luis Barajas, Peter Beasley, Elliot Borge, David Caban, Andrew Conner, Eduardo Cuautle, Sam Euler, Luis Medina, Victor Pineda, and Anthony Torres. Most of you recognize Pineda's name.
Pineda became the Chicago Fire's first homegrown player on August 17, 2010, one month after the championship win. The Bolingbrook native has yet to see any minutes in MLS Regular Season play but his time is coming. Pineda probably would have made his first team Fire debut if it weren't for playing a significant amount of dates with both the Fire U18 Academy team or the U.S. U20 team. Pineda has officially graduated from the Fire U18 Academy but he just left with the U.S. U20 team for the Milk Cup in Northern Ireland. Fire fans will unfortunately not get to see Pineda appear in the exhibition game against Aston Villa this weekend like he did against Chivas Guadalajara last year. Look for the Fire's first homegrown player to make his MLS debut in August, possibly even August 4th against Toronto FC.
The Chicago Fire's PDL squad has historically been one of the top teams in the Premier Development League. However, the Fire never benefited from having the MLS rights to PDL players. MLS rules grant teams the ability to sign players who played two years with a team's academy. PDL playing time on its own did not help a player's eligibility. That became irrelevant this year when the Fire academy had been around long enough to produce enough graduates to fully stock a competitive PDL side. Some of the players that got major time this year? Let's see if you recognize these names from the 2010 U16 USSDA championship team: Keaton Albert, Luis Barajas, Peter Beasley, Andrew Conner, Sam Euler, and Luis Medina.
Chicago's 2012 PDL team finished a historically disappointing 6-7-3 but they mirrored a true development like that of a Major League Baseball minor league team. The PDL teams of past were essentially a group of college all-stars. The fact that 11 former Chicago Fire PDL players were selected in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft confirms that.
The picture from above is the squad that defeated PDL side Chicago Inferno 1-0 on Sunday. The Fire PDL team won the season series vs. the Inferno 2-0-1. With the victory, the players earned the inaugural 'Chicago Classic Cup'. The standout players in the game were Luis Barajas, Drew Conner and Bryan Ciesiulka (another Fire academy graduate). You can see the Fire are making long-term player development the main issue instead of great short-term results.
U16s of Present
If you had to wager a significant amount of money on the U16s or the U18s advancing to academy playoffs finals week, the wise decision would have been to make the bet on the U18s. This was the same core that won that U16s championship two years ago and had added Chicago Fire homegrown player Kellen Gulley. The U18s were the team that was ranked No. 1 in the country and went on what is believed to be the longest unbeaten run in USSDA history (21 games).
The U16s on the other hand won the Great Lakes Division over the Crew Soccer Academy Wolves by a single point. Just before the playoffs began, the U16s best player, Louis Bennett, broke his leg. The U16s are a fairly young group compared to the other teams out there. The final straw was supposed to be their group draw of Clearwater Chargers, Seattle Sounders, and Real Salt Lake AZ. Academy Director/Head Coach Larry Sunderland described this draw as the 'Group of Death' on the All-In podcast with Chicago Fire team writer Jeff Crandall. Chicago Fire Director of Player Development John Dorn told me he saw the group and called a colleague to say, "Well, the U16s had a nice year. They are a young group so hopefully they can use this as a learning experience for next year".
As often happens in college basketball, the dominant but untested team (U18s) fell in an upset. The battle tested team rallied around a loss to pull off some shockers (U16s). The Fire U16s won their games 4-2 over the Chargers, 3-0 over the Sounders, and 2-1 over RSL-AZ. They now play Charlotte Soccer Academy on Tuesday, July 17th at 8:00 PM, the New York Red Bulls on Thursday, July 19th at 9:00 PM and Pateadores on Saturday, July 21st at 8:00 PM. The best team out of the group will move on to the U16s championship game. All games are taking place in Houston.
Marcus Epps and Jeffrey Farina led the Fire U16s in scoring during the regular season and they did all the scoring in the playoff group play. Epps had 13 regular season goals and has 4 academy playoff goals while Farina finished with 9 regular season goals and has 5 academy playoff goals. The Fire defense is led by highly ranked goaltender Kyle Dal Santo. The other major contributors are Martin Alba, youngster Collin Fernandez, Christian Henock-Berhanu, Michael Jimenez, Grant Lillard, John Moderwell, James Myall, Brian Werchek, and supersub Anthony Smith.
The heavy favorite standing in the Fire's way is the New York Red Bulls. The Harrison, New Jersey based club boasts seven players who trained in the prestigious U.S. U17 Residency program in Bradenton, Florida this past year. Those players just add to the talented roster that qualified New York for the playoffs in the first place. Imagine having an already above average team and then adding seven of the nation's alleged top players to that team. Thursday's game might be tougher than the final if the Fire are lucky enough to get there in the first place.
Future for the Academy Players
On the immediate horizon, some of the U18 players will be used in the upcoming U20 National Championships. It's not quite what the best of the U18s were hoping to be playing for this week but it's still soccer for a trophy. The Fire play Knoxville Soccer Academy at 10:00 AM on Thursday, July 19th, the Ottawa Fury at 12:00 PM on Friday, July 20th, and the VSI Tampa Flames on Saturday, July 21st. Once the U20s are finalized, the players will return/start with their respective college teams.
The players still in the academy can look forward to the Generation Adidas Cup in Seattle in early August. There are two groups (U17s and U15s) and the tournament is exclusively for MLS teams. This year's team will be much more focused than last year when several levels of Fire youth teams were competing at the same time and some southern based Fire Juniors programs were utilized to fill out the Generation Adidas cup roster due to proximity (last year's cup was in Texas).
One cycle ends and another begins. Now that the USSDA has banned players from playing academy soccer and high school soccer, the Fire academy season starts on Saturday, September 15 against St. Louis Scott Gallagher Missouri. Previously Fire academy teams played a couple of games in late November before playing the bulk of their season in the spring. The 10-month academy season is upon us.