Aston Villa: A Pillar for Player Development

Fire's friendly opponents have brought along some greats

The Chicago Fire are very proud of the club’s player development system – and with good reason. 

Its Premier Development League Team has sent 83 players to professional teams around the world, and has seen seven of its former players go on to represent the United States in international competition. 

This year, the Fire’s U-16 Academy side compiled an impressive 11-1-4 conference record, and earned a spot in next week’s U.S. Soccer Development Academy national finals, where it will try to win its second title in three years. 

The academy system is not the traditional model for American sports, as it has usually been left to schools and independent youth club teams to develop the nation’s best young talent. In fact, both of those institutions still play very important roles in the development of American soccer players, alongside academies like the Fire’s. 

But elsewhere in the world, professional teams and their academy systems are firmly entrenched as the only way to produce top-tier talent. And Aston Villa, the Fire’s friendly opponent next weekend, is a great example.

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There are some soccer academies that even casual fans are familiar with.

The prestigious Ajax academy has a long history of producing some of the most technically skilled players on the planet. Barcelona’s academy paved the way for the Catalan club’s incredible success this past decade -- as well as the Spanish national team’s current dominance.

In England, Arsenal has gained sterling a reputation for bringing in young talent and giving them first team chances very early (and then – sadly for Gunners fans – losing said talent to other clubs.) West Ham United, while not as world-famous as Arsenal, is also renowned for its academy’s player development.

Going back a generation, Manchester United developed the core of its turn-of-the-millennium dynasty through its academy system. The names are familiar to almost anyone who follows soccer: Giggs, Beckham, Scholes, the Neville brothers, etc.

Aston Villa is not always mentioned as one of the premier academies in the UK, but based off its recent history, it’s hard to argue with their success. Former Villa youngsters Gareth Barry and Gary Cahill were both named in the England squad for last month’s European Championships, but unfortunately missed out due to injuries.

German defender Thomas Hitzlsperger and former England strikers Darius Vassell and Gabriel Agbonlahor (right) are among the other names from the Villa youth ranks to achieve international success, and many who have not quite made it to international level have still gone on to solid domestic careers.

Of course, out of the above-mentioned five players, only Agbonlahor is still wearing Villa’s claret and blue. (Looking back a bit further, even Dwight Yorke – who came to Villa as a teenager and became one of the most prolific goalscorers of the 90s – left for Manchester United before he turned 27.)

A lot of that is just the nature of professional soccer, where squads change year after year, and clubs often lose their top players to teams that can afford to pay more. But Villa have re-stocked with a new generation of academy graduates, a group of players that has won numerous titles at both the Academy and Reserve levels and is now starting to make its mark on the first team.

The cast of young Villans is as multi-national as it is talented.

Among the Englishmen are Marc Albrighton (22), who has scored nine goals from the midfield in his first two full seasons, and England youth internationals Nathan Delfouneso (21) and Gary Gardner (20). Austrian Andreas Weimann (20) scored two goals in just ten league appearances last season, and Ciaran Clark (22) is already a full Irish international.

Australian midfielder Chris Herd (23) made 18 starts in the Premier League last year, and American fullback Eric Lichaj (23; pictured right) made nine starts, tallying a 

goal as well. Lichaj – a Downers Grove native who actually played four matches for the Chicago Fire PDL side in 2006 – joined the youth ranks at Villa after his freshman season at North Carolina.

Most (if not all) of these players are expected to be in the squad for next Saturday’s match at Toyota Park, along with a host of other promising youngsters.

And while it may only be a friendly match, it will also be a chance for the younger players to stake a claim for more playing time in the upcoming season. This is especially true since Villa just brought in a new manager, hiring Paul Lambert away from Norwich in June.

With the start of the 2012-13 Premier League campaign just a month away, an impressive performance in Chicago could be a big help for these academy graduates to become Premier League regulars sooner rather than later.

Given the strength of Villa’s youth program in recent years, it might not be wise to bet against them.

Tickets for the international friendly against English Premier League side Aston Villa on Saturday, July 21 at Toyota Park are still available. Call (888) MLS-FIRE or click here to purchase!