Growing Up Gulley

New Home Grown player trained with first team Monday

New striker Kellen Gulley took to the training pitch for the
first time Monday morning following last Thursday’s announcement that the
17-year-old Chicago Fire Juniors-Mississippi product would become the club’s
second Home Grown player.

Following Victor Pineda’s signing as the Fire's first Home
Grown talent last summer, Gulley also became the first player from one of the
club’s three satellite Fire Juniors affiliates in the southeast (Mississippi,
Louisiana and Florida) to sign with the first team.

Gulley’s signing is the biggest part of with the Chicago
Fire Juniors satellite partnership which began in Jackson, MS in 2005 according
to the club’s Director of Player Development John Dorn.

“We went down there in preseason and had a first team game
against Chivas USA. They treated our guys like kings and we could tell we
were onto something good there.”

It didn’t hurt the partnership to have former Fire
midfielder Justin Mapp hailing from the state. The soft-spoken Gulley
remembered the team’s 2005 trip well and pointed to Mapp’s words and example as
a reason for wanting to join the Fire.

“I’ve wanted to play for the Fire since I was really young,”
he said Monday. “The first team visited us in Mississippi when I was 10 years
old and Justin was on the team then. He told us all about the time he had here
and seeing another player from Mississippi come back year after year with the
Fire made me want to be a part of the club.”

A highly touted prospect with the Mississippi Juniors, the
next year Gulley began a string of five consecutive summer visits to Chicago train with
various Fire youth teams. In addition to training with the club’s first team,
PDL and Super-20 sides in 2010, he’s appeared in three consecutive Generation
adidas/SUM Cups with the Fire Academy (2009-11). Dorn contends that 
with no U.S. Soccer Developmental Academy program in the
state of Mississippi, the CFJ presence in that state as well as
Louisiana is vital for development of those players.

“Those CFJ clubs are fundamentally the main point of
competition for elite level players in those areas,” he said. “That underlines
the point of why we do affiliations from a player development standpoint. To
get players like that exposure in environments and arenas that they wouldn’t
otherwise have because they’re not MLS markets. The payback on our end is
finding a player in Kellen and he ends up right here with our first team. It’s
a proud day to see him come through and be an official member of the team up
here.”

A veteran of eight international caps for the U.S. U17 Men’s
National Team, Gulley was named to U.S. Soccer’s Residency program in January
2010 and would have likely been a part of this summer’s U17 World Championship
team if not for an ACL injury which occurred last year.

Playing in his first “intense” training session since
surgery on his ACL last year, Gulley felt positive about the experience of
playing with the first team.

“It was good to get out with the guys,” said Gulley after
his first training session Monday. “I feel fine. I need to get my fitness level
a little bit higher and I’ll be good to go. I already know a few guys on the
team so that makes things easier but I’ve gotten along so far and I’m looking
forward to working back into form.”

Gulley, who will wear #94 in reflection of his birthyear, will have plenty of time to find his form before
seeing first team minutes. Part of his moving to Chicago this summer was to
fulfill the required two years of "residency" mandated under Major League Soccer's "Home Grown Initiative". He will officially be a
squad player for the first team come the start of the 2012 season but the
striker will be available for selection in the team’s remaining 2011 MLS
Reserve League fixtures as well as being a part of the 2011-12 U18 Chicago Fire
U.S. Soccer Development Academy side.

Familiar Mississippi Faces

After being away at U.S. Soccer Residency in Bradenton, FL,
Gulley is used to being away from home, but will be joined in Chic
ago by two
other CFJ-Mississippi products who are moving to the area to play for the
Fire’s U16 Development Academy side this year.

“Kellen’s just one example of the job CFJ-Mississippi does
in producing quality players. Hayden Cochrane and Mark Epps are two other
players from the club that are coming up this summer to join our Academy.
They’ve played with us at other events and felt like they needed to get into an
MLS Academy program in order to continue their development. We’re five years in
and have taken that step with our Academy, bring more players in from the
satellites is a great achievement and answers those that asked, ‘Why Mississippi?’,
‘Why Louisiana?’”.

Similar to last summer with the announcement of Pineda, the club
is stressing Gulley’s need for time for further development. Meaning any
expectation of him starting in next season’s First Kick match is unrealistic.

“In Kellen we have a great player that has tremendous
potential to contribute to this club in the future but any immediate
expectation is premature,” said Director of Player Personnel Mike Jeffries.
“The fact that he’s not able to play for the first team this season takes a
little pressure off but we think his ability to still play with the Reserves
and Academy will be a good easing in to the first team for him when he becomes
eligible at the start of next season.”

Jeff Crandall is the
Team Writer for the Chicago Fire. Follow him on Twitter @JefeCrandall.