Bridge To London: Chicago Fire Academy Partners With Docklands JFC

The Chicago Fire hosted South London U13 club Docklands JFC last week in a continued effort to grow youth football domestically and abroad.

As an educator I tend to draw parallels from my profession, and those parallels sometimes find themselves in my writing. I’ve always believed one can learn just as much through experience as through any other portal. And those experiences, paired with the knowledge and understanding we already carry, can build bridges to help us achieve some of our greatest dreams. In many cases, the impact made through those experiences can teach us more than we’d ever thought. I also subscribe to the notion that everyone has something to learn, and everyone also has something to teach others. I learned an important lesson this weekend with my short time with Coach Jamie Mehmet and his boys from Docklands JFC. 

"In America, the players are friendly. ... They are more positive to other players." -Harry Payne, Docklands JFC keeper

I found out about Docklands JFC in a fairly unspectacular way; through Twitter. I try to keep up with the Chicago Fire not only through their first team news, but with the youth side of the club as well. I then learned that the Chicago Fire and its academy were hosting the team from South London this week and were taking part in youth games and tournaments through outreach by Fire owner Andrew Hauptman, Director of Soccer & Team Development Paul Cadwell, and the Chicago Fire Academy staff. When I was presented with the opportunity to cover the team’s visit and its relationship with the Chicago Fire Academy, I knew this was a great opportunity to connect with the club on a whole different level, away from the first team and into the youth development side of the club; the side that’s brought us Chris Ritter, Victor Pineda, and Harrison Shipp. What I came to learn about my weekend with the two clubs wasn’t solely about scores and minutes played, but more about experiences shared, memories made, and relationships fostered.

The Chicago Fire hosted South London U13 club Docklands JFC this week as a relationship with the English club grows

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Courtesy of @DocklandsJFC on Twitter

Jamie Mehmet is the manager of Docklands JFC, based in Rotherhithe, South London. The club was started in 1997 by a group of parents whose children had no team to play for. Local club Fisher Athletic had moved out of the area and closed their youth clubs, spurring the movement to make Docklands the premier youth football club in the area. Jamie has been with the club for eight years, running the coaching gauntlet, so to speak, spending time coaching with the Under-7 squads all the way through to the Under-13s, the squad he coaches now.

"Now we’ve got homegrown heroes the 10, 11, 12 year olds can look up to." - Paul Cadwell, Chicago Fire Director of Soccer & Team Development

Although Docklands JFC are a self-acknowledged small club, they’ve accomplished some very impressive achievements in their relatively short history. In just this season’s campaign, the Docklands JFC U13 squad won the treble, becoming league winners, league cup winners, and winning the London County Cup, which is the biggest youth cup in the United Kingdom. Docklands JFC also offers a portal to the professional game for their players, and in the last two seasons have had young men move on to professional academies, such as Arsenal and Dagenham & Redbridge. After this season, Docklands JFC will see five of their players move on to professional academies. Three are on their way to West Ham, one to Brentford, and one with his pick of Millwall, West Ham, Fulham, and Charlton - the youngster still has yet to decide which professional academy he will join!

The accolades don’t stop there. Jamie has also been recognized for his tremendous efforts with the club, and in 2013 won FA Coach Of The Year, the FA Outstanding Contribution To Community Football Award, as well as the FA 150 Grassroots Heroes Award, which is a national recognition and is awarded to only 150 people out of over 700,000 possible candidates in recognition of exceptional service to grassroots football. Jaime received the award from FA Chairman Greg Dyke and Prince William at Buckingham Palace. The award was also special in that it celebrated the 150 years of the English FA.

As I spent time with Jaime and his staff I learned a great deal about their philosophy, not just for teaching the kids to be great footballers, but to teach them to be great individuals. This dedication to the development of the players is demonstrated not only by the long list of accomplishments the club has enjoyed, but by the stunning fact that all coaches for Docklands JFC are strictly volunteers. When asked about what the commitment of the coaching staff meant for Docklands, Jamie said, "We do it for the love of the game and we do it for the children. First and foremost, they are a lovely group of kids, and we try to do whatever we can for them. We don’t do it for the recognition, but to get some recognition is brilliant, and that’s only attracted more children to the club, so we’re hoping that with the success, more children come along."

Jaime and Docklands JFC squads have had the opportunity to travel around Europe and visit with a number of professional academies. Over the past five years the club has organized for the boys to play friendly matches with academies such as St. Mirren of the Scottish Premier League, FC Porto of Liga Sagres in Portugal’s top flight, Valencia CF of La Liga in Spain, as well as Galatasaray and Besiktas of the Turkish Super Lig. For the kids to have that experience to see how professionals play the game and also play against those teams’ academies undoubtedly helps them to understand different aspects of the game, as well as those who play it. "The kids learn something from everywhere they go. Not only about the football, but interacting and learning about each other’s cultures", Jamie says. "Of course we want to develop them in to good players, but we also want to develop them into good young men."

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Jamie Mehmet and Archie Mehmet at Chicago Fire Training. Courtesy of @DocklandsJFC Twitter

The connection between Docklands JFC and the Chicago Fire grew from a relationship with Fire Owner Andrew Hauptman. Andrew has good friends within the club, and knew that Docklands JFC is a group that is always committed to the children and dedicated to do what’s best for them. Andrew contacted Chicago Fire Academy Director Paul Cadwell about the opportunity, and from there a connection from Chicago to London was opened through the Fire’s partnership with Docklands JFC. Paul Cadwell explained that the Fire utilized its relationship with Adidas to outfit the team with brand new full kits and warm ups, and the relationship between the two clubs continued from there.

Cadwell described how the Fire’s relationship with Jamie’s club has grown. "Jamie is so involved with youth soccer, and working with the FA, and is very good at what he does; we’ve kind of built that up into getting to this point today." Jaime and Paul have been working together for the last two years to have Docklands come to Chicago. "Jaime has done everything he can to receive grants from a local council and have worked with people back in the UK to get [to Chicago], and we’ve assisted here in the US by providing the games, helping with ground transportation, and doing anything we can to help bring their cost down, and provide things that the kids might not have got."

Paul knows that even though the relationship between the Fire and Docklands has grown rapidly over a short amount of time, there’s much more to come in the future. "Overall this is the first step, and what we then want to do moving forward is be in the position to take our teams to London and be hosted by Docklands."

The boys of Docklands JFC played a number of games during their time in Chicago, most notably a match against the Chicago Fire Academy U13s on the Toyota Park Field Sunday eveningi after the Fire’s first team and reserve matches. Both teams walked out together in front of a number of fans who stayed to watch them play. The pre-match handshakes and banner exchange was a remarkable sight to see as both teams greeted each other, a culmination of so many hours, days, and years preparing for this opportunity for these two clubs to meet cementing the partnership they’ll undoubtedly carry on for a very long time.

The match was one of the more exciting I’ve seen at the youth level, with both teams having their share of chances in the match. In the end it was the Chicago Fire U13s that saw the match through with a 2-0 ending score line. But everyone in the stadium, from the fans, coaches, to the boys on the field would tell you the same thing: This is less about goals scored and more about the experiences and friendships the teams have made during Dockland JFC’s time in Chicago.

I had the opportunity to speak to Harry Payne, goalkeeper for Docklands, who after this season will be moving on to West Ham United’s youth academy about his experience in America, and he said he’ll be sure to take the positivity that American boys have in the game of football. "In America, the players are friendly. Sometimes opponents back home might say you’re rubbish and try and rub it in your face, but in America they say ‘well done’ or, ‘unlucky’. They are more positive to other players."

The boys also took in their first MLS experience as they watched the Chicago Fire first team match up against Sporting Kansas City from one of the stadium suites, an accommodation that any young boy would relish. "There’s quite a big difference between the American game and the English game", says Kelly Odhe, forward for Docklands JFC. "They press very high and force you to get rid of the ball. There’s hardly any time on it, and you’ve got to be rid of it before the defense closes. You’ve got to be able to adapt to the game and how others play it, and that can help us in how we play back home."

We know how important youth development is to the Chicago Fire, and that may be most easily seen by the success of Fire Academy alumnus Harrison Shipp. Coming from the Fire’s youth development program and playing his collegiate soccer at Notre Dame, Shipp is the poster boy for the Chicago Fire. Not just as first team player whose production as a rookie has him as an early favorite in the MLS Rookie of the Year race, but a symbol of inspiration for the youth academy. Shipp and his homegrown senior squad teammates Victor Pineda and Chris Ritter now serve as motivation for younger players within the Chicago Fire youth system because they now see the opportunity they can have if they are successful in the early stages.

Paul Cadwell explains the significance of the growth and success that players like Shipp can experience from the youth to the senior level. "What Frank Yallop and Brian Bliss have done this season is given an opportunity to younger players with the belief that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough." He continues, "The fact that we’ve got a system that allows players to jump from the 18s to the 23s to the first team and slide right in because they know the system, words can’t express how important that is, that we’ve got a coaching staff that believes in them too.

"Now all those kids know if they’re good enough, they’ll get the opportunity. And they can be the next Harry Shipp, the next Ante Razov or another player." It’s undoubtedly invaluable for young players within the system to be able to see a clear opportunity for progress and success between the different levels of the club. "Now we’ve got homegrown heroes the 10, 11, 12 year olds can look up to," Cadwell said.

Much of the success of the Chicago Fire youth academies is thanks to owner Andrew Hauptman. Hauptman has made it his mission to make the Chicago Fire the team of the Midwest. The Chicago Fire Juniors now have 11 clubs spanning from Chicago, Indiana, Michigan, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Florida. That kind of commitment to the youth game with intention of giving young players the opportunity to play at a high level throughout their careers in hopes that they can continue to excel and become the Chicago Fire’s next homegrown player is nearly unparalleled in Major League Soccer. And by casting a large umbrella of clubs that have the advantage of benefiting from the Chicago Fire youth programs, it increases the Fire’s ability to grow the brand.

We at Hot Time In Old Town have highlighted some of the exciting things going on within the Fire youth system, and it’s clear that the excitement will only continue. With the U16 team going to Qatar and the U13 team going to Italy - and with the U18 team soon bound for Germany - the experience the Chicago Fire Academy will gain from playing some of the biggest clubs in world football can pay dividends in the Chicago Fire’s development of young talent, helping them transition from the youth ranks to the senior squad.

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