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Making The Jump: Player Development Across MLS

Are the Fire behind the curve when it comes to developing the next generation of MLS ready players?

Tasos Katopodis

The Fire have had an active role in player development beginning from the youth stages of the game with the Chicago Fire Academy, to the Super 20s, and Chicago Fire Premier of the Professional Development League. But with all the success these programs have had throughout the years, why hasn't the club been able to produce more homegrown players that can make the jump from the academy or PDL to the starting XI similar to homegrown players from other teams within MLS?

The Fire Premier have competed in the PDL since 2001 and have been considerably successful as it soon will be approaching its twelfth year in the league, boasting a record nine straight playoff appearances and seven division titles within that time. Aside from the impressive team stats, perhaps the most staggering of statistics for the Fire's PDL team is that in the last eleven seasons, 83 players have made the move to the professional ranks whether within MLS or in major leagues in Europe. Of those 83, three are currently with the Fire: Chris Rolfe, Tony Walls, and Austin Berry. DaMarcus Beasley and Carlos Bocanegra spent time with the Fire before making their moves overseas, but there have not been many players making the jump from development to first team.

Although the Fire signed first ever homegrown player Victor Pineda in 2010, he has yet to make his MLS debut for the team, as the midfielder is still working to get back to 100% physically after spending the offseason and preseason recovering from knee surgery. Kellen Gulley was signed to a homegrown contract as well in 2011, but he is currently away from the club training in Atlanta, and just today it was announced in an official press release that a loan deal was reached with NASL side Atlanta Silverbacks, so it doesn't seem he will be seeing any first team minutes this season. Needless to say, the Fire's first two homegrown players won't be making an immediate impact.

It's evident that success in the academy or in the development league doesn't directly translate to first team success-if the comparison is made to that of baseball prospects, top young players can spend years at a farm club before being called up to the "big time", as may be the case with Pineda and Gulley.

However, if comparisons are drawn from other homegrown players around the league, there are teams that are experiencing different results than that of our Chicago Fire. The first and most relevant contrasting example of homegrown success compared to Victor Pineda is Juan Agudelo's success in MLS. Agudelo and Pineda both came up through the ranks of their clubs academy programs, Red Bull New York and Chicago Fire, respectively. Both also trained together at US U17 Residency Program in the fall of 2008. Both had very similar exposure to player development both at the club and national team levels, but are experiencing two very different results, and we are even reminded of his success most recently after he scored a screamer from outside the 18 yard box last weekend against the Fire as a member of Chivas USA. Agudelo has two goals in for games this season.

LA Galaxy's homegrown signing Jose Villarreal serves as another example of a player who has made the quick transition from academy prospect to a first team presence in MLS. Signed to a homegrown contract in December 2011, saw 253 playing minutes in his first MLS season, tallying his first goal at Vancouver on July 18th, 2012. Villarreal also has gotten off to a promising start this season, stealing the limelight from returning LA captain Landon Donovan, as Jose came on in the 70th minute and scored a stoppage-time goal that proved to be LA's saving grace as the match ended in a 2-2 draw against Toronto FC.

Diego Fagundez, homegrown player for the New England Revolution recently signed a new contract that will see him stay with the club for the foreseeable future rather than try weighing his options abroad. The 18-year old signed the first homegrown contract in club history for New England in 2010 and also made a successful jump into the first team. Fagundez scored four goals and recorded three assists in his first two seasons, making 26 appearances, including eleven total starts. He scored his second goal of the 2012 campaign against the Fire and proved to be the game winner for the Revs in their final home game of the season.

There is another example of a homegrown player making immediate significant impact for his club, this time in the form of Deandre Yedlin. Joining in January 2012, Yedlin was the Sounders' first homegrown signing in club history and has been a regular starter in this 2013 campaign, and has scored a goal in international competition against Tigres UANL in CONCACAF Champions League play, knocking Tigres out of the tournament in the quarterfinal earlier this month.

Although it may seem the evidence presented for homegrown player success is largely unfavorable for the Fire, Yedlin's example may prove there is a glimmer of hope for Fire fans as there was little mention of the rookie defender before the season started, but has done an exceptional job of earning a spot in Seattle's starting XI and proving to his club that he is an asset. Victor Pineda very well may have that sort of impact for the Fire, especially since the current midfield arrangement has proven to be out of sorts. Pineda, when healthy could have the potential to come in and earn a consistent role in the Fire midfield.

Furthermore, FC Dallas is a perfect example which proves that more homegrown players does not equal more breakthrough players like those mentioned above. FC Dallas has signed nine homegrown players since 2008, many of which have not had a notable impact on the team, and three of those nine are either inactive or on loan.

The fact remains that there is no clear cut approach to producing homegrown talent and ensuring that they make an immediate impact to the first team, but the Fire may have their next big thing waiting in the wings in midfielder Victor Pineda, and Kellen Gulley may find some valuable developmental opportunities in Atlanta, priming him for an eventual move back to Fire camp.