Larry Sunderland pulls out his laptop, turns it on and starts skimming through slides detailing the Chicago Fire's youth player development program. The slides contain no less than a major piece of the Fire's future, and by extension, the future of Major League Soccer.
"We have a long-term perspective on player development and we have what we consider to be the 'Fire Way' of our style and philosophy of play," Sunderland says, his excitement for the program evident in his voice. "The way we instruct from Under-10 and beyond is all very unique and very different from the way things have traditionally been done in this country."
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Like all MLS teams the Fire began its academy in 2008 with the idea of developing its own players, following the lead of the biggest foreign clubs. This is the second season it has trained U-10 players, something the Fire was the first in MLS to do.
The Fire signed two homegrown players this off-season, Harry Shipp and Chris Ritter, and Sunderland -- the academy's director and head coach -- and academy player development director John Dorn believe that could be just the beginning of a pipeline that keeps the Fire first team stocked with talented soccer players for years to come.
If MLS is to be one of the best leagues in the world by 2022, as commissioner Don Garber has said is his goal, this will be an important piece of the puzzle. The Fire has a long-term perspective also, putting its program emphasis on developing players for the first team rather than winning U-12 games.
"It's as pure a development system as you're going to see, certainly here in the United States," Dorn says, noting the financial support of Fire owner Andrew Hauptman. "We're trying to mirror what goes on overseas. It's certainly difficult, but as much as we can do here, Andrew's supported it full throttle. It's good to see because I think results are already starting to happen with players coming through. It may not be two players a year. Two players in one year is pretty good. There's a pipeline now."
Shipp and Ritter make four homegrown players the Fire have signed, and they represent a departure from the first two players, Victor Pineda and Kellen Gulley, who were signed out of high school. Pineda, a Bolingbrook native signed at age 17, looks to have a promising future, but at 20 he has yet to play for the first team in an MLS game, something that could change this season. Gulley was released earlier this month without showing much development as a pro.
Unlike Pineda and Gulley, Shipp and Ritter both played in college, with Shipp winning a national championship at Notre Dame last fall.
Shipp probably would have been a top-three pick in the MLS SuperDraft this winter if he hadn't signed with the Fire. He is the type of player the Fire is trying to develop, but because the team is starting even earlier, at the U-10 level, and refining its philosophy, it expects to develop players who are even smarter, more instinctive players with more developed physical ability.
"We had open tryouts this past year after just doing one season with the 10s, 11s, 12s," Sunderland says, his voice rising again with enthusiasm. "It was hard to find players who can even compare to what we have now, after one year, because they've trained four times a week, because they've had the right environment, because they've had the proper training."
Fans, in part frustrated by the first team's struggles, wondered why the Fire didn't sign more homegrown players the past few years. While young players like Los Angeles' Jose Villarreal, now on loan with Cruz Azul in Mexico, and New England's Diego Fagundez made an impact with their clubs, fans wondered whether the Fire would develop its own budding star.
The Fire had its own timetable.
"Victor was a unique situation because he wanted to be a pro," Sunderland says. "College really wasn't in the plans for Victor at that point. The opportunity for him to sign with the first team was a tremendous opportunity."
But the way the league and its reserve league were structured meant that young players were better off going to college to develop, Sunderland said. The Fire recently had nine academy players sign to play at Division I colleges, hoping to find "like-thinking college programs where we felt that the player might continue to develop," Sunderland says. "… So we started that pipeline at that point, moving those players through the college programs, and now you're just starting to see that pipeline hit the first team with Shipp, the Ritters, with a kid like (recently released draft pick Bryan) Ciesiulka."
For now those colleges represent a pipeline the Fire hopes to keep using. And there will be more players coming through.
"I think there are a half- dozen guys on our 18s right now that clearly are better soccer players already than Harry Shipp and Chris Ritter were when they were in the 18s," Dorn says. "That's nothing against Chris Ritter and Harry Shipp. It's just these are the stages of development we're getting to. And the guys who are 11 and 12 right now, if it develops right, are going to be ahead of where these 18s are."
Fire ownership is very supportive of the academy program, Dorn says.
"Particularly in our case we're very blessed because there's no selling Andrew on this idea," he says. "He's all in. … The commitment certainly to a strong development system but most important on the pure technical side to invest in players all the way down to age 10 by Andrew is huge."
Dorn and Sunderland believe that investment is just starting to pay off.
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