The Chicago Fire Academy U-18 side completed a barnstorming run through the United States Soccer Development Academy play-offs just before midnight Saturday, defeating top-ranked and favored Real Salt Lake-AZ, 3-1, to claim the 2014-15 championship trophy.
The title is the second national championship for the Fire Academy, and will join the 2009-10 U16 title in the club's trophy case.
Chicago's title triumph stands as a triumph for the Fire Way, Larry Sunderland's development schema. Importantly, Sunderland and his staff instituted a classic 'boot room' tactical discussion; the players were intimately involved in developing the tactics and approach for each opponent. Entering the playoffs, the Fire had a respectable record, but weren't considered serious threats for the title, as their No. 15 seed in the 32-team pool indicates.
The win in the final was surprisingly one-sided. RSL-AZ is widely considered the best academy program in MLS (leaving aside the Galaxy's consolidation of the LA youth market) - but Chicago controlled play early on, and got the opening goal when Michael Jimenez headed home a rebound in the 13th. RSL answered with a tremendous stretch of pressure over the latter part of the first stanza - but the Royals couldn't find a goal. CF97 striker Andrew Gutman punished them for that failure when he stepped into a wayward pass at the top of the box and slotted home for a two-goal Fire lead just before halftime.
The favorites trimmed the lead to one early in the second half and the game played on nervily, the Fire looking to counter-punch - a strategy which paid off handsomely when Gutman again blazed into the area late in the game, cutting a wicked cross that an RSL defender turned into the goal to ice the victory.
This group - led by youth national-team standouts Cameron Lindley and Mauricio Pineda - never wavered once the games were underway. They won their first two group games, but still needed a point against a favored Red Bull Academy team to move into the knockout stages. Despite playing a man down for most of the second half, the Men in Red gutted out a 2-2 draw to move on.
The dramatics weren't over once the knockout stages started. The Fire needed a stoppage-time winner to best Houston in the quarterfinals, 4-3. In Thursday's semifinal against Montreal, Chicago survived a potentially devastating late leveller to score twice in extra time and storm to the final, 4-2.
Massive congratulations are due to Sunderland, John Dorn, Gonzalo Segares and the rest of the Academy staff, as well as this fantastic group of young players.