As the Chicago Fire first team departed from O'Hare Airport on Sunday afternoon, the number in the traveling party was in excess of the norm. Despite leaving a few players behind to rehab injuries, trimming a few trialists and waiving a couple others from the preseason roster, the Chicago Fire Soccer Club was in no uncertain terms, traveling heavy.
In a significant nod towards the club's devotion to player development, the Fire's U18 Academy team accompanied their first team brethren to Guadalajara for preseason training this week. In addition to providing a valuable learning experience for a talented group of young players, the occurrence is noteworthy because of its precedence -- the first time a full Academy team has joined its MLS big brother in preseason. Not to be outdone, the U16 Academy players will join the Fire on the third leg of their preseason tour when they travel to Jackson, Miss., next month.
"This is invaluable for our Academy players," said Director of Player Development John Dorn. "The trip is a great opportunity for our kids and says a lot about where we're headed with player development under our ownership and technical staff."
While training alongside the first team is thrilling enough, the U18's will experience full club integration while in Mexico: traveling and eating meals together, with some of the youngsters taking part in first team training sessions.
One of the Academy players joining the first team is Brian Ciesiulka, the first player signed to the Fire Academy back in 2007. Having already committed to Marquette University, the Neuqua Valley High School senior was named Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year last week and is looking to make the most of the adventure in Mexico, while keeping a level-head.
"From the time we were told we would be going to now, all the guys have been excited," said the Academy midfielder. "Being around the first team, seeing what they do on the field or the way they carry themselves outside of training, it helps to gets our minds set in the right place. Overall the entire team is enjoying the experience and we're trying to take away as much as we can to help us in our Academy season."
Planting the seeds of devotion to player development in 2001 with the affiliated Chicago Fire Reserves of the USL's Premier Development League, the club has steadily built the pyramid over the years. Following the club's acquisition by current owner Andrew Hauptman, the Fire hired Chicago soccer legend Frank Klopas as its first Technical Director and rededicated the club's mission towards player development that continues under the tutelage of new head coach Carlos de los Cobos.
As it stands now, the Chicago Fire Soccer Club has a fully integrated player pyramid from recreational and youth players all the way up to the first team MLS side. The result of the Fire's player development initiative has seen countless players developed for the collegiate and professional ranks, with the Fire PDL side holding an overall league-wide record for number of players selected in the MLS SuperDraft with 45.
With part of the goal in the partnership between Major League Soccer and the U.S. Soccer Development Academy to produce homegrown players for local MLS sides, Frank Klopas sees potential for some of the players to sign directly with the club's first team.
"The ability to be able to retain players that you've developed is a great incentive for all MLS clubs," said Klopas. "In the past we've seen players come through part of our development system and go on to help other sides.
With the setup in place now, it gives players a chance to join the Fire family at a young age, play good competition and bring players through to eventually play for us in MLS, which is a very positive step in the growth of American soccer."
When the U18's time with the first team ends next Monday, the U16's will have their turn with the first team, meeting up with the side in Jackson, MS on March 9. Three days later they'll travel as a club to New Orleans for two more days of training, and immersion among professional players and coaches.
"Our hope is that the players as well as the Academy coaches can take a lot away from this experience, learning from players like Brian McBride and Wilman Conde and a coach as decorated as Carlos," said Klopas. "The Academy has done a great job so far and we're excited to see where it goes in the next few years."