By Charles Fulkerson
If you breathe Chicago Fire, then you owe it to yourself to take a deep drag on what I’ll call the Fire Farm Team. Proof of its success is the Fire’s “home grown” player, Victor Pineda, becoming the first player to go through “the player development system” and sign a contract with the club last year.
Like the food pyramid, and the real thing in Egypt, the development pyramid is bottom heavy (loaded with players) and the top is much narrower and more competitive (fewer and better players). The base of the pyramid is made up of numerous U8-U17 teams, also known as the Chicago Fire Juniors created in 2004. The U stands for “Under”, and the number represents the maximum age for that league. One anomaly is that you can have a highly skilled 14 year old playing on the U17 team, but it doesn’t go the other way. No 20 year olds are playing on the U19 team.
The next level is divided into upper zones. Zone 2 consists of U16 and U18, Chicago Fire Academy Teams created in 08. Next up, Zone 3, U19-U23. Zone 3 is known as the Chicago Fire Premier, originally named Chicago Fire Reserves and created in 2001. Finally the best players graduate to Zone 4, known as THE BIGS or the Chicago Fire MLS, created in 1998. Talent-laden players can skip zones, leap-frogging their way to the pros. Victor Pineda played two seasons with the Fire Juniors and then three seasons with the Fire Academy Teams. He made only token appearances with the U18s before signing a pro contract.
The farther up the pyramid you go, the fewer teams for that age zone. The pyramid system is based on kids “playing up the ladder.” Weaker players fall off the ladder quickly at the lower rungs, or levels. Since the start of Chicago Fire Premier, 86 players have reached the pros.
There is a wild card, however. That would be the Home Grown Player Rule. Players must play two seasons with a club before entering college for that Club to have a claim on him. An MLS club can’t claim or “protect” a player once he’s entered college if he hasn’t fulfilled the 2-season rule. Simply put, that means if a team discovers a player after college, or if he’s played only one season with the club before entering college, they can only access that player through the Super Draft, as opposed to just signing him.
“The ultimate goal would be to develop players who ARE ready to be professional at 18 and skip U20 (USL Super-20) and U23 (PDL). If a player has that special quality, they would play in the U16 & U18 Academy teams and forego high school soccer,” explains president of Chicago Fire Premier, Todd Short. “Upon high school graduation, (they would) sign a professional contract. The player would attend college and continue their education, but play only professional soccer.”
Prospects in the Development System that deserve a sharp eye, according to Short, include David Meves, Ethan Finlay, Kevin Cope, Tyler Polak, and Harrison Petts.