The Chicago Fire didn't make the Major League Soccer playoffs last season, but at the academy level the Fire is traveling in elite company.
The Fire's U-15 team took on the likes of England's Manchester City, Portuguese side FC Porto and a Qatari club at the Al Kass International Tournament in Doha, Qatar. It finished last in the tournament, but the Fire showed it can compete with the best at the youth level while playing an attacking style of soccer.
The tournament also featured youth teams from Real Madrid, Barcelona, Fluminese, Paris-St. Germain and AC Milan. Qatar's Aspire International won the tournament.
"Overall the experience for the kids in so many ways was just a life-changing event when you talk about the football of it," Fire Academy director and head coach Larry Sunderland said. "To be in that kind of an environment, on that kind of a stage, with those clubs that were in it, there's nothing else like it. This even was comparable to a World Cup with the investment that the Qataris put into it and the quality of the play and the quality of the facilities, there's nothing like it."
To Sunderland and Fire Academy player development director John Dorn, it's clear there was nothing like it as far as developing the academy program.
"They come back with a brand-new appreciation of what the game is at the highest levels because you don't see it," Sunderland said of the players. "You watch it on TV, but you don't see it on the youth end in this country. It's a new appreciation of OK, this is really what it's all about if we really want to be considered among the best in the world. And that is off the field as well."
It was an uphill battle for the Fire. The MLS salary cap is less than the $3 million Manchester City invests in its U-15 team, Sunderland said. Yet the tournament showed Sunderland the Fire is approaching its youth development program the right way.
"For me I come back and I look at it and I go this is where these teams are, now I have to have a strategy of how to get there," Sunderland said. "It gives me an idea of how close we are. It gives me an idea of what's different and it gives me an idea of how to address it. … It confirmed some of the things we need to do differently, it confirmed some of the things that we're absolutely on the right track."
For example, Sunderland said, "we are 100 percent on the right track with our style of play. There's no question about it. Everybody over there commented about it, and their comments were along the lines of we were playing a Continental game now. We didn't play like they expected American teams to play. They expect American teams to always have this fire in their belly. To always work hard, but they're not going to play attractive. That's not us at all."
Still, there is room for improvement, particularly at the youngest age groups with biomechanics.
"The Europeans are spending a lot of time and investing quite a bit of money in the youngest age groups in biomechanics: balance, coordination, perception, proprioception, reaction time. All these things that they're doing when the players are 10-14 with sport scientists to make them better athletes by the time they're 15 have a direct relation to the game and the way they play."
In Sunderland's example, two players challenge in the air for a header. The European player comes down, plants and is off and running. The Fire player lands, stumbles and has to recover. Sunderland hopes to hire someone to work with the youngest age groups at the academy on this.
The trip could not have happened without the help and connections of Fire owner Andrew Hauptman, Dorn and Sunderland said.
"No dancing around it, me and Larry have pretty good contacts in soccer around the world, but our contacts don't get us in the Al Kass tournament," Dorn said.
And by the way, Dorn and Sunderland can't wait to see Qatar host the 2022 World Cup. They expect a smashing success, something Dorn calls a "World Cup Disney World" with the best facilities money can buy tucked into a small area, with no stadium more than an hour from another by train.
"They have it figured out over there so you can attend three matches and see a training, a World Cup training, every day," Sunderland said. "Nowhere else in the world can you do that."
The only question is climate. Qatar plans to air-condition the stadiums, unless FIFA allows Qatar to move the tournament to the winter.
• The Chicago Fire announced that draft pick Bryan Ciesiulka, who is from Naperville, will not be invited to continue training with the team in Arizona for the final weeks of the preseason. Ciesiulka was one of six trialists not invited back, including former Fire defender Tim Ward. Forward Orr Barouch, who has been on loan to Israeli side Bnei Yehuda, will rejoin the Fire in Arizona.
• Follow Orrin on Twitter @orrin_schwarz