En Route: A Look Inside Chicago Fire Academy

Examining the first MLS Academy to win the National Championship

The last four months have been hectic for the Fire Academy. In July, they became the first MLS club to win a Development Academy National Championship. Weeks later, Fire signed their first Academy player to a professional contract, Victor Pineda.

Director of Player Development, U16 Academy Head Coach, and Fire Assistant Coach Larry Sunderland talked with goal.com via email about what the home grown signing meant, the future of the academy, and how they incorporate the same philosophy through the ranks.

Coach Sunderland in his own right has been very successful recently as a national finalist with his Chicago Fire Premier in 2009,  and a national title with his U16 Academy team in 2010. In 2009, he was given the title of Director of Player Development and put in charge of the Development Academy for the Fire.

The signing of Pineda was a major step for the Fire. Sunderland said, “For us, it is the beginning to what we hope will be a regular cycle of Academy players moving into first team roles. I think in the end, the success of our Academy program will be judged by the success of those players graduating to the first team.” Pineda was a crucial part of the National Championship U-16 team and played with the U18 U.S. National Team in Argentina over the summer.

“Of course, (Pineda) moving from the youth club through the Academy to the first team is an inspiration for all of our younger players and justifies everything we have believed in over the past seven years of building a complete player development model.”

As for the future of Pineda with the full team, “Certainly much of this will be dependent on (Pineda’s) continued development at the professional level but, the ability to find (Pineda) minutes on the Academy and Reserve teams while he grows into a greater role with the first team is a good option for him. We will have to see how he matures and continually evaluate what is best for him.”

Now that the Fire have signed their first home grown contract, they are looking at other ways to improve the Academy. Asked about the possibility of setting up a residential program, Sunderland replied, “Yes, we have been in discussions about this.  It is certainly an option down the road for us and something we are researching.”

Beyond the future prospect of a residential academy, Sunderland talked about the transition from club soccer to MLS academies. “For the Academy guys the first piece to the development process for us at the Fire is the transition from a club soccer mentality to a professional club mentality…it is much different in every aspect here.” Sunderland went on to add, “With our Academy guys we are trying to prepare them for the demands of professional soccer – both on and off the field.”

Another one of the major adjustments Chicago Fire has made with their player development is jumping into it at a younger age. Recently, they created ‘Project 2016.’ As coach Sunderland explained, the goal was to teach technical development at a young age.

“The 2016 program was in response to some issues we were recognizing at the youngest ages within our club program. We didn’t see the technical development we hoped for. The idea was to place some of our top staff with the young kids – try to keep the costs down as best we could and monitor the development over a longer period of time.”

By 2016, they are hoping this group of players will be at the Academy-level and ready to contribute. Even in the short term, Sunderland is recognizing how to tweak the small things so the players are better equipped for the next level.

“We are re-evaluating what we are doing on the field with these ages. I've been trying to address some of the limitations I am seeing with our older players (Academy, PDL, First Team) at a progressively younger age. Hopefully, in a few years we will see the results as these players come through to the Academy system.“

The other ideology Fire have attempted to implement is the shared playing style from the full team down the Academy ranks. “Being a part of the first team staff has allowed me to take Carlos (De Los Cobos’) ideas on what the game should look like and share them with the younger players.  Many of the messages he is trying to get across to the pros we repeat throughout the youth programs.”

Now that Coach De Los Cobos has been at the helm for almost a season, Sunderland and the rest of the Academy staff have a better idea of how to fine tune the smaller elements of the game. “Some of the micro issues like individual player characteristics that Carlos (De Los Cobos) likes to see in certain positions we are incorporating into our process and I think some of those ideas are actually challenging us to look at how our younger players are developed.”

These alterations are helping to shape a clear picture of what the club wants stylistically from their teams. “So, yes the image is becoming clearer but, I think there is work to be done on both the first team end and the Academy end as we better define what Chicago Fire Soccer will look like.”

While it still may be in its infancy, the Fire Academy knows the direction they are headed and have some very successful coaches leading the way.

J.R. Eskilson is the youth soccer editor of Goal.com. Follow him on Twitter @NCAAsoccer and join Goal.com USA's Facebook fan page