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The Kids Are Alright

The Chicago Fire U-15/16 team is in the national championship semifinal game. That’s great. But I’m also about to get on my soap box about youth sports.

The Chicago Fire U-15/16 is in the national championship semifinal game. Please just be cool about it.

The Chicago Fire U-15/16 team is going to play in the national championship semifinal match today for the U.S. Soccer Development Academy.

It truly is an impressive feat and I am sure a great experience for the kids to travel to Los Angeles and play some of the best in their age group. The game, coincidentally against the FC Dallas youth team, will be live streamed on YouTube and at 3 p.m. CT.

And I’m not going to watch it.

I have been struggling with how or if to cover this story for the blog since I saw the U-15/16 team get out of the group stage and make it to the quarterfinal where they eventually won. At that point I knew this was a special group of kids that might win a national championship.

But that’s what they are. They’re kids.

For their hard work and determination, I thought they deserved to have their story told on this platform. But I also hate the idea of promoting the “prospect” culture that, in my opinion, has destroyed the beauty of youth sports and sucked the fun out of being a kid playing a game.

I don’t deny that the work people like Larry Sunderland previously and now Gonzalo Segares do is important. Youth should be developed properly in their chosen sport so they may have a chance at making a living doing what they love. But the work of people like Sunderland and Segares is FOR the youth, not for fan consumption.

It is great players like Collin Fernandez can come up through the Fire youth system and sign with the club. He signed a professional contract at 17 years old. At that point, he was fair game for fans to put expectations on and criticize. But if a 17-year-old is on the Fire U-17/18 team playing in a U.S. Academy National Tournament, the last thing he or she deserves is professional expectations when we don’t even know if a professional soccer career is what that individual wants.

What we do know is most of the kids in games like this upcoming U-15/16 game will never make a living as a professional soccer player. So we shouldn’t treat them as such. No one should salivate over the idea of a player like Andrew Akindele one day suiting up for the Men in Red. If that day comes, have at it then. But until that day, he is not a professional. He is just a kid trying to develop his soccer game as best he can playing a game with a group of his peers as best he can.

As you may have guessed, I think an event like National Signing Day on ESPN is the most hideous and disgusting thing to promote. High school kids declaring their college with stupid Vine videos and sending grown men and women with actual responsibilities into a frenzy is sick. If the kid doesn’t pan out, the fan base revolts like they were actually owed something by that person and move on to the next hot 17-year-old.

I even watch professional and college sports very differently. If someone on the Chicago Bears messes up, I have no problem unloading on the handsomely compensated person with professional expectations. If someone on the Northwestern Wildcats football team messes up, I just hope the next play goes better. The line between how people watch professional and collegiate athletics has already been nearly destroyed, I just worry it is starting to trickle down to high school aged kids far too quickly.

Streaming a game played by a soccer team comprised of 15 and 16 year olds is not even close to the horror of National Signing Day. In fact, it can be pretty cool as friends and family who could not travel to L.A. get a chance to see the game. But if you, as a stranger to these kids, decide to watch the game please do it out of the purest intentions and support.

The kind of intentions that allow a coach to go to the kids after the game and tell them 1,000 people watched them on YouTube. That’s cool to a kid. That’s fine. Just please don’t watch with even an ounce of expectation for either the team or an individual.

We’ll cover the great achievements of these kids in the Fire family we all love. But don’t expect to see a single story on an Academy “prospect” on this blog. Some other blogs do and that’s fine. But I choose to wait until that prospect signs an actual professional contract. At that time, we can delve into what his past coaches say about his strengths and weaknesses and what the current coach expects of the player.

Until that time … I wish the U-15/16 the best of luck and hope they have a great time in California.