The U.S. Soccer Development Academy program consists of 77 clubs from around the United States and the Vancouver Whitecaps. Of these 78 clubs, 32 each make the playoffs in the U-18 and U-16 division. The Chicago Fire's Academy has a short but proud history that includes a championship in the U-16s during the 2009-2010 campaign. Many of the U-16s that won back in '09-'10 are still with the club. They are hungry to take the U-18 championship now that they are older. The U-16 squad is eager to make their own mark on the history of the Chicago Fire Academy.
The USDA playoffs began today and the Fire U-18s kick-off their first game tonight at 8:30 PM CST. After the break, we'll take a look at all of the Fire Academy's upcoming games, how they did in the regular season, and some key players for each squad.
Chicago Fire U-18s
Monday, June 25th vs. Concorde Fire at 8:30 PM (UPDATED: Concorde Fire 2 - Chicago Fire 1)
Tuesday, June 26th vs. Albertson SC at 8:30 PM (UPDATED: Chicago Fire 2 - Alberston 1)
Thursday, June 28th vs. Solar Chelsea at 11:00 AM (UPDATED: Solar Chelsea 3 - Chicago Fire 1)
UPDATED: Solar Chelsea advances from the group. The Chicago Fire U18s finished third in their group.
Regular Season: 18-2-3 (Conference 13-0-3)
Main Players: Keaton Albert, Luis Barajas, Andrew Conner, Kellen Gulley, Victor Pineda, Joel Salmeron, Anthony Torres
National Ranked Players According to TopDrawerSoccer:
No. 9 in 2012s: Andrew Oliver
No. 34 in 2012s: Kellen Gulley
No. 39 in 2012s: Drew Conner
No 91 in 2012s: Jesus Medina
Chicago Fire U-18s enter the tournament as the number 1 ranked squad in the country. Since losing their first two games of the year to Minnesota Thunder Academy (2-1) and Shattuck-Saint Mary's Soccer Academy (1-0), the U-18s have been on a 21-game unbeaten streak. Their opponents were outscored 66-13 for an average scoreline of 3.14 to 0.62. As you can imagine, current Chicago Fire homegrown players Victor Pineda and Kellen Gulley are a big benefit. However, the TopDrawerSoccer ranks for guys like Andrew Oliver and Drew Conner that put them on a similar level to Gulley do both players justice. U-18s have split time between their goalies Christian Lomelli and Zak Allen. It's unclear which one will start in net in crunch time. I would be remiss if I didn't mention the peculiar tale of supersub Joseph Calistri. Calistri has only started 7 games but he leads the team with 16 goals in 21 appearances. Pineda is second on the team with 10 goals while Conner and Gulley are second with 6 goals. Gulley himself has played in 20 games but only started 10. This squad spreads out their minutes. It's not just a matter of the uber prospects dominating.
Chicago should be able to win their first two games. Concorde Fire (a team out of Atlanta that has no association with #cf97) and Albertson SC (New York) are quality teams but nothing elite. Fire U-18s will have their hands full on Thursday when they square off against Solar Chelsea. The Dallas based club matched Chicago's firepower by scoring 89 goals in 31 games. Defense is Solar's weakness as they gave up 46 goals. Look for the Fire to still win and advance from the group. It won't be easy as Solar enjoys the home field advantage at the FC Dallas Sports Park Complex.
Chicago Fire U-16s
Tuesday, June 26th vs. Clearwater Chargers at 4:00 PM (UPDATED: Chicago Fire 4 - Clearwater Chargers 2)
Wednesday, June 27th vs. Seattle Sounders FC at 6:30 PM (UPDATED: Chicago Fire 3 - Seattle Sounders 0)
Friday, June 29th vs. Real Salt Lake AZ at 9:00 AM
Regular Season: 15-3-5 (Conference 11-1-4)
Martin Alba, Louis Bennett, Kyle Dal Santo, Marcus Epps, Michael Jimenez, Grant Lillard, John Moderwell, Brian Werchek
National Ranked Players According to TopDrawerSoccer:
No. 27 in 2015s: Collin Fernandez
No. 57 in 2015s: Michael Jimenez
No. 68 in 2013s: Kyle Dal Santo
No. 70 in 2013s: Louis Bennett
No. 144 in 2013s: A.J. Jeffries
The U16s may have not been dominant on the same level as the U18s but some of the end results were the same. The Fire U16s won the regular season Great Lakes Division (edging the Crew Soccer Academy Wolves by one point). They are the No. 1 seed in their Academy Playoffs group just like the U18s too. Finally, 45 goals for and 16 goals against compares well to the rest of the country and demonstrates an academy-wide defensive commitment. Nationally ranked Kyle Dal Santo is the U16s primary goalkeeper and sets the defensive tone. The squad has received a boost from the return of A.J. Jeffries (son of Chicago Fire Director of Player Personnel Mike Jeffries). A.J. had been a top prospect playing for the U-17 U.S. National team before getting hurt. Don't be surprised if he followed the path of Kellen Gulley (U-17, injury, recovery, homegrown player).
If the Fire U16s are to advance, their defense will have to continue to shine. Marcus Epps lead the team with 9 goals in the regular season. Anthony Smith was a supersub in his own right scoring 6 goals in 6 starts and 21 appearances. Jeffrey Farina and Christian Henock-Berhanu finished tied for 3rd with 4 goals a piece. The remaining goals were scattered throughout the club. Seattle especially packs an offensive punch. If the U-16s fall behind, they will be in trouble.
For some more information, check out Chicago Fire team writer Jeff Crandall's All-In Podcast with Fire Academy Director Larry Sunderland. The Fire's @ChiFireMatch twitter account will have periodic updates. We'll post updates of our own back in this thread as the week goes along.