Roosevelt: Chicago Fire Academy Developing Youth Soccer Players in Professional Setting

Victor Pineda Photo

Victor Pineda, seen here on Sept. 14, 2011 in an international club friendly against Club Deportivo Guadalajara, is the first and only homegrown player to be signed directly from the Chicago Fire Academy. (Photo courtesy Brian Kersey/Chicago Fire)

Roosevelt Stop IconBy Jill Jacoby and Jeremy Mikula
The Red Line Project
@RedLineProject

Posted: Sunday, March 11, 2012

Like nearly 17.5 million American children, Victor Pineda, 18, grew up playing soccer in his hometown of Bolingbrook. While most kids only dream of playing elite soccer, Pineda took his professional aspirations to the Chicago Fire’s youth academy, a part of Major League Soccer’s recent attempt to recruit and train young American talent.

“It behooves any country with serious aspirations on the world soccer scene to entrust the development of its young players to the pros,”wrote Leander Schaerlaeckens, a soccer analyst for ESPN, in May 2011.

Schaerlaeckens was referring to MLS’s ongoing struggle to produce homegrown talent like its European and South American counterparts. For nearly a century, clubs in England, Spain and Brazil, among others, have relied on their youth systems to scout and develop young players.

Meanwhile, American soccer has relied heavily on its club, high school and college teams to produce worthy professional and national team talent. This past decade, MLS teams started developing a youth system to improve not only its clubs’ talent pool, but also its international potential. Players like U.S. international Juan Agudelo in New York and Andy Najar in D.C. are some of the bigger names in MLS to come out of the league’s academy system.

The Chicago Fire Academy (CFA) was founded in 2007 in order to provide high-level player development designed to identify and nurture talented and aspiring high-school age soccer players like Pineda into top professional players.

Picking the Players

CFA director Larry Sunderland, who was been with the Fire since 2001, is in charge of the youth players’ development. He said he believes the CFA is a key component if the club wants to ensure its future success.

“There is no perfect science for picking players,” Sunderland said. “It’s kind of an art.”

Although he looks first at the Fire Juniors, another part of the Fire’s Player Development Program, Sunderland admits there’s not a clear pipeline that leads him to the correct players.

Focusing on a 75-mile radius around Bridgeview, Sunderland finds talented boys aged 15 to 18 to participate in the CFA, split into two age groups: 15-16 and 17-18.

The CFA focus on several key areas when selecting potential academy players: technical skill, a reasonable understanding of the game, personality and physical ability. According to Sunderland, picking players is a “blending” of the checklist.

“It’s hard to put a finger on it,” he said. “We look for highly technical players because we play a technical game. But I think personality is something that’s very important. We look at a guy’s personality and see if he is confident, outgoing, a leader. Now, that doesn’t mean we don’t have excellent players who are shy, but we do look at personality.”

The players do not have any cost associated with the CFA, nor do they sign professional multi-year contracts. Rather, they commit to the academy on an annual basis. Since “99 percent” of Academy graduates go on to play collegiate soccer at “top-notch” programs, according to Sunderland, they are not compensated for their time at the academy in order to abide by NCAA regulations.

Many wonder with the vast majority of players going on to play collegiate soccer, why the MLS bothers with its youth development system. According to Sunderland, players who play for the CFA (and other club academies) are considered “homegrown” players. When it comes time to draft them into the MLS after college, teams have the first draft rights to their homegrown youth stars.

The Life of a CFA Player

The 50 boys selected for the U-16 and U-18 teams train 10 months out of the year in a closely watched setting structured to mirror a professional’s schedule. The players are required to go through the Nike SPARQ fitness test, as well as having their hydrogen levels measured by Gatorade and education about nutrition.

Turf Field Toyota Park Photo

The Chicago Fire Academy trains and plays on the turf field located
in the north parking lot outside of Toyota Park. (Photo by Jeremy Mikula)

The players train after school three to four days per week for 90 minutes on the turf practice field just outside of Toyota Park in Bridgeview, in the ground’s north parking lot. The players are given one regeneration day — typically Monday — to recover from their weekend games and prepare for the upcoming week. Friday is often a light training session, while weekends are taken up by matches and travel if games are away.

In previous years, players were still eligible to play for their high school soccer teams, however the CFA decided to make playing for the Fire Academy exclusive this year.

One reason is the schedule. The CFA plays a 30-game schedule as part of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy League — a league consisting of 78 total clubs, including all of the MLS academies. Following a similar format to the nearly year-long FIFA calendar, the team will play approximately 15 games in the fall, train during the winter at the Bridgeview Sports Dome, and follow up in the spring with another 15 games.

Unlike European academies, the players aren’t housed at a team training facility. Instead, they go home to their families each night and live a relatively normal life. Sunderland admits that keeping close tabs on the players is difficult, but the team does expect their players to maintain a professional academic and personal lifestyle.

“We don’t have a set GPA that they have to maintain,” Sunderland said. “But last year we had two or three guys ... who weren’t carrying their weight academically. They weren’t allowed to go on the [pre-season training] trip.”

Pineda, who first joined the Fire Juniors before trying out for the CFA, described the life of an academy player as one with “a lot of sacrifice,” but one that is ultimately worth it.

Pineda — the first and only homegrown CFA player to sign a professional contract with the Chicago Fire straight from the academy — understands the leap from local club talent to the professional academy training lifestyle.

“Every training session mattered if you wanted to earn a spot in the starting eleven,” the midfielder said. “In club, you aren’t surrounded by as many good players and maybe the coaching wasn’t as good. You have more days off and the [CFA] games are a lot harder.”

The Future of the CFA and the MLS Academy System

The MLS academy system, and the work of the CFA, is merely one step in a larger process of developing young soccer talent in the U.S.

Chicago Fire Sign Photo

An exterior shot of Toyota Park, home of the
Chicago Fire, in Bridgeview. (Photo by Jeremy Mikula)

The U.S. Soccer Development Academy League, and the United States more broadly, are still too big to Sunderland, who said a premiership league with promotion/relegation is possible for the academy system down the road.

“But could the tiering system work with the travel limitations? I don’t know, and that’s where the balance comes in because the country is so big,” Sunderland said.

But in the more immediate future, Sunderland thinks the MLS will start reaping the benefits of its academy system: homegrown players not signed to pro contracts could be drafted after only two years in college, for example.

“I think you’re going to see better domestic professionals coming through the ranks, guys that have been better prepared for professional soccer,” Sunderland said.

Being better prepared for professional soccer means meeting higher expectations every day in training sessions, Pineda said.

As for the Fire Academy, Sunderland has big plans for the future.

“I can definitely see us getting younger and being fully-funded, meaning U-10, U-12, U-16, U-18, because then you’re really developing,” he said. “As you get younger, it tends to be a greater percentage of player development and less of player identification. I think that’s the major step.”

More portions of the Victor Pineda interview can be heard on SoundCloud.

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