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MLS Youth Programs in Chicago Look to the Future

The Chicago Fire Soccer Club is currently struggling through a rough season in Major League Soccer. But there is much more to the club than meets the eye. In an attempt to build the foundation for both its future fan base and its future roster, the Fire have assembled an extensive network of youth teams that includes more than 15,000 children.

MLS, a 20-year-old league, has only recently adopted this technique, which is modeled after the structure many European clubs use. MLS teams such as FC Dallas, the Los Angeles Galaxy, and the Fire, have built strong youth soccer organizations. 

The Fire have two programs: Fire Juniors — a network of clubs made up of the majority of those 15,000 players and aimed more at building a fan base — and the Fire Academy, which is focused on cultivating elite talent. 

European clubs such as Spain’s FC Barcelona already have such large fan bases that they do not need to use youth programs as a means of building support. But Barcelona is at the leading edge in terms of player development. 

The La Liga club has long run an innovative talent factory (think of it as a super elite version of the Fire Academy) that begins training players when they are very young. The system has produced a fair number of athletes who end up making first-team rosters in Europe or elsewhere.

This technique, albeit a watered-down version, is now widely used across MLS. Strategies differ across the league, although all clubs are required to operate, at a minimum, an academy with U18, U16, and U14 teams. (Fire Juniors-style programs are not mandated.)

Nurturing local talent became a priority for MLS clubs in 2007, when the league introduced the Homegrown Player Rule. This rule essentially stated that if a player had participated in a club’s youth programs, that club would retain the rights to the player and could sign him without other clubs getting a chance. 

Under the homegrown player system, MLS clubs’ youth programs have produced such talented players as Gyasi Zardes and Juan Agudelo, who are both on the U.S. men’s national team. 

A New Home for One Fire Juniors Club

Flags rippled in a light Chicago breeze. The sky was overcast, and the air was on the chillier side, cool enough to make you want a sweatshirt. On this recent late-summer morning at the PrivateBank Fire Pitch, both soccer fields were occupied. 

The Fire Pitch is the Chicago Fire’s new $20 million facility on the North Side of the city financed primarily by the Fire’s owner, Andrew Hauptman. Among many other functions, it hosts games and practices for the Juniors City club. In November, a giant air-supported dome will be erected over the two regulation-size, artificial-turf fields, as it was last winter. 

Juniors City has teams for kids ages four to 18, some recreational and some travel. Most travel squads play 36-week seasons.

Aside from Juniors City, there are three other Fire Juniors clubs in Illinois, two in Indiana, one in Michigan, one in Florida, one in Kentucky, and one in Louisiana. Each club includes teams for several age groups.

“When we talk about the Fire Juniors … we talk about increasing our brand, we talk about revenue, and we talk about, of course, player development,” Fire vice president Logan Pause said in a recent interview. 

It’s not, however, meant to be a pipeline into the Academy. “We want as many players as possible playing the game and enjoying it, and they want to be a good [Juniors] club,” said Fire vice president of communications Doug Hicks. “But it is an opportunity to identify that top tier of talent.”

Fire Academy: the Elite Tier

It is unlikely that Victor Pineda will ever forget March 23, 2014. An Academy product, Pineda signed with the Fire first team as a 17-year-old in 2010, becoming the club’s first ever homegrown player. 

Yet the Chicago-area native did not see any playing time until that March day four years later, when the coach subbed him in for the last 20 minutes. As he entered the match, Pineda received plenty of applause from the crowd at Toyota Park, the Fire first team’s stadium in suburban Chicago. 

Pineda is no longer a member of the Fire organization; he now plays for a second-division Indianapolis club. But his brother, Mauricio, has followed in his footsteps, rising to the highest level of the Academy, the U18 team. Mauricio, now 18, joined Fire Juniors, “when I was 12 or 13,” he said. A couple years later, he started playing for the Academy, where he is currently a defender. He also plays on the U.S. men's U20 national team.

The Academy was established with the express purpose of turning talented young footballers like Victor and Mauricio Pineda into MLS Fire players.  “Our Academy is strictly elite player development,” Pause said. “We’re trying to get our guys to the first team.”

Unlike Fire Juniors, the Academy is free for players. “We want to remove any barriers,” Hicks said. “If you’re good enough, we want to make sure you make it.”

Just getting into the Academy is no easy task. Each year, a tryout is held. “All of the Juniors teams came to a big tryout at Toyota Park,” Mauricio remembered of the day about four years ago when he got to show his skills to Academy coaches. While tryouts are the primary method of procuring players for the Academy, there is some scouting and recruiting, Pause said.

The Academy, which is considerably more exclusive than Juniors, includes three teams — U18, U16, and U14 — that are part of the U.S. Soccer development league, as well as several others for different age groups as young as U10. All are based in the Chicago area. The Fire were the first MLS club to include a U10 team in their Academy, Pause noted. 

Mauricio’s squad practices four days a week, Monday through Thursday, at the fields next to Toyota Park. “Usually Wednesdays are harder training,” said Chicago-area native Djordje Mihailovic, a 16-year-old who plays with Mauricio on the U18 team as a midfielder. Fridays are the only off-days for the players most weeks during the 27-game regular season. 

Over the weekend, the team typically plays league games. Home matches are held at the Toyota Park practice fields, but for away matches the players travel to destinations around the country. “There’s not much free time, but it’s worth it,” Mauricio said.

While Mauricio and Djordje live near Chicago, other players don’t have such an easy commute. Cameron Lindley, a midfielder on their team who also plays with Mauricio on the U20 squad, must travel three hours (each way) to practices. “Sometimes training sessions for a kid like him are reduced so they don’t have to do that four days a week,” Pause said. 

A handful of other players on the U18 team have homestays in the Chicago area during the season because they live so far away. 

There is not a very close relationship between the first team and the Academy, but occasionally they do train together. Also, as Hicks noted, “Some of the best Academy players get to play scrimmages with the first team if there are not enough healthy first teamers.” 

The Future

Since Pineda became the first homegrown player to play for the Fire first team in 2010, five other Fire Juniors or Academy products have made the roster. Most have not gotten much playing time, if any. For instance, Collin Fernandez, 18, who played for Fire Juniors when he was little and the Academy later on, has only appeared in one game since he was signed last year. 

But Harry Shipp, 23, is an exception. Since signing in 2014, he has played in almost every match and scored nine goals, becoming one of the Fire’s stars. He had previously played for Fire Juniors, then at Notre Dame before signing with the Fire. “Being signed by the team I grew up watching, it worked out pretty perfectly,” said the Chicago-area native. “It was always a dream of mine.”

Right now, as the Fire first team stumbles through another losing season, it’s important to remember the team’s future, which seems bright. In June, the club’s U18 Academy team won the national championship at its level. 

“We believe that over time we will have more Academy players in with our first team,” Pause said before a recent Fire MLS game at Toyota Park. “Hopefully these guys are the next crop that, before long, we’ll get to see playing out here.”

Photos: Chicago Fire Soccer Club (Juniors, Academy), Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images (Shipp)

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