By AVI CREDITOR
The Chicago Fire could be on to something that might help Major League Soccer take the next step in its progression of player development.
By incorporating its U-18 and U-16 youth academy teams into its slate of preseason training, the club has become the first in MLS to take such large measures in integrating its senior and youth teams.
"From out standpoint, we want to be the best," Fire technical director Frank Klopas said. "We're not geniuses. It's not that we've created something new. This is something that's a part of every top team in the world. If you want to be developing players, this is the process you have to go through. It's even more important to do so because you have a salary cap and restrictions."
Other MLS teams have brought in academy players to train with the first team before, but never full academy teams for such an extended period of time. The Fire's player development staff is operating in uncharted territory but believes the payoff down the road will be huge.
"This has been a dream to do something like this," Fire youth development director John Dorn said. "The teams that do things right from the player-development side are going to be the successful clubs. It works all over the world, and it works here, too."
The Fire's U-18 academy team touched down in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Sunday and will be training with the senior team until March 1. The U-16 squad will meet the senior team for its third leg of training in Jackson, Miss., on March 9 for three days before traveling with the team to New Orleans for a two-day stint beginning March 12.
The teams are training on separate fields at separate times, but already a few academy individuals have participated in drills with the first team, and it's not out of the realm of possibility that a full-on scrimmage will take place during the week.
"Everything we do mimics the first team," Fire academy director Larry Sunderland said. "The way we treat our academy players is that they're young professionals. These guys are transitioning from youth soccer players to professional soccer players and this is the best way to do it."
First-year head coach Carlos de los Cobos is fully on board with the plan, as are the veteran players who will be leaned on for extra guidance over the course of the week.
"The personnel from the leadership standpoint is in place to put it all together," Sunderland said. "Carlos' leadership is such that we have a one-club mentality."
Most of the interaction between youth and senior players happens at meals, in the hotel, while traveling or during other down time. The organization also has set up formal sessions, where players like Brian McBride or other first-team personnel, from coaches to equipment staff, will address the youth players.
"It fosters the ability for our guys to be picked up," Sunderland said. "In the end, when and if that happens for us, it'll be done for the right reasons. It won't be done just because we want to move a guy through. That is the next step in this progression."
The Fire have yet to sign a player from their academy system, but Klopas estimated that as many as four youth players are currently on the eventual path to the first team.
"It's great to be able to retain these players and develop them the way we want to play soccer," Klopas said. "We want to keep these players in Chicago and not anywhere else. One day, we believe these players will be playing for the first team. There are players, for sure, that I believe within a couple years will be ready."
The U.S. Soccer Development Academy system, still in its infancy, has been a bit of a mystery for fans. Only a handful of players have made the jump from academy team to first team, and it seems as if only recently have teams seriously stressed the importance of youth player development as an integral part of building a franchise.
The benefits for a team, and the league, to cultivate its own players are both cost-effective and roster-efficient as has been proven overseas. Players who participate in a team's academy can sign a professional contract with that team and avoid being selected in the MLS SuperDraft.
But because the importance of attending college is stressed so much in the United States, the academy system here will likely always trail the European system in terms of effectiveness and efficiency.
"There's certainly challenges here," Dorn said. "The educational component is such a huge part of our culture that we're never going to get 100 percent like the European model. Things like this are going to get us pretty close to it."
Should what Chicago is doing turn into a successful venture and lead to academy teams turning even more into a feeder system to the first team, other franchises will undoubtedly look to model their youth systems in the same way.
Teams like the Houston Dynamo, FC Dallas, Chivas USA, L.A. Galaxy, New York Red Bulls and D.C. United have already embraced the academy system, with each signing academy players to the senior roster. Chicago is perhaps providing the blueprint to allow themselves and other teams to do so as well.
"We believe it's the future of any team around the world," Klopas said. "There's no difference with us in this country."