With the Chicago Fire U-18 team currently ranked first in the U.S. Soccer Developmental Academy nationwide standings and the U-16s ranked fourth in the country, Chicago-Fire.com sat down with Academy Director Larry Sunderland to talk about what the teams do best and what the future holds for these talented young men.
Chicago-Fire.com: What are your overall impressions of both the U-18s and U-16s this season?
Larry Sunderland: The U-18s have had, to be fair, the season I expected them to have as far as the quality of play and the results that they’re getting. I think we had a pretty good feel for them coming in as most of the players have been with us for three years. Even though we dropped the first two games of the season in Minnesota, we weren’t too concerned at the time and we haven’t dropped a game since November.
The 18s are in pretty good shape right now. My biggest concern with them is that it has been a long season. They haven’t been challenged an awful lot and going into the playoffs, I don’t know if they’re at their best right now.
The U-16s are a unique group. We just got them in this year; they’re a young group and a lot of them will be around again next year in this same age group. They’re performing as well as can be expected. They’re doing a great job, and based on initial thoughts, they’ve overachieved. Right now I’m pretty pleased with the way they’re training every day and the way they’re coming out in matches. I think they might be peaking at the right time and going into the playoff, it’s just a question of how deep they are off the bench.
C-F.com: What do the teams do best and what do you think they need to work on?
LS: What both teams do best is they play good, possession-based football. They’re very dynamic on the ball, they’re very active off the ball. Both teams are good at that.
What both teams need to get better at is the consistency throughout a 90-minute match and realizing that the objective, as well and as pretty as they play, is to win matches and score goals. Sometimes they get a little carried away with just being good on the ball and enjoying passing the ball around -- they forget that they need to get to the goal and score.
C-F.com: The U-18s went the entire month of April without letting in any goals. Does it concern you that in May and June, they have only recorded two shutouts?
LS: I don’t know, I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that they’ve become complacent because they can get away with an awful lot of stuff. To be fair, part of it is almost self-inflicted because they’re looking for challenges. Sometimes they mess around with the ball so much that they get caught, and going down a goal or two provides a little bit of a challenge and they’ll push the game a little bit more.
I don’t know, maybe they do it just to give their coach gray hair.
C-F.com: Who are the players to watch, and what makes them so special?
LS: To be honest, the way both groups play is really a team effort. I would say through the course of the season, on the 18s Drew Conner has been very consistent in the middle for us. He’s a leader, our captain. Anthony Torres has been fantastic as a centerback. Luis Barajas has been a creator, and gives our team a bit of a hard edge. And of course we have Victor Pineda (right). Victor has been fantastic anytime he’s on the field – he’s been very good.
With the 16s, like I said, they’re a really young group. I like what Grant Lillard is doing now as a centerback. He’s going to be a really strong centerback for us. He’s 6-3, has good feet and does a nice job commanding the game in the air. I think in the middle of the park our most consistent guy has probably been Martin Alba, again a young guy who’s going to be around again with the 16s. He organizes the field and sprays the ball around really well for us. And our most dynamic guy on the ball has been Marcus Epps. He’s just real, real tricky on the ball.
C-F.com: Do you see potential in any of the current players to go straight to the pros?
LS: That’s a difficult question. I think there are many guys on the 18s that will play professionally at one time or another. Making the jump from high school straight to the professional level, or from the U-17/U-18 academy to the pros -- there are so many intangibles involved with that, so many things have to work.
I’d like to think that Luis Barajas has a little something special and it might work for him because there are some intangibles there that come together but I think there are guys that will be there in the not-too-distant future, but they’re still a couple years away from jumping right in.