The Chicago Fire Academy U-16 team had to fight and scramble just to earn a spot in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy playoffs. But Friday, the Fire will get the opportunity to play for the U-15/16 championship at the Home Depot Center in Carson, California.
That scenario became a reality Monday evening when the Fire collected a goal in each half to claim a 2-0 victory over D.C. United. Luis Medina scored in the 20th minute to put the Fire up for good and his brother Jesus added an insurance goal in the 42nd minute. As a result of winning their first two matches in Group 1 play, the Fire has already clinched a spot in the Friday's 7 p.m. finals. Although they still have a match on Wednesday against De Anza Force, the Fire (16-5-10) doesn't need to worry about the outcome.
That's the same situation that has unfolded in Group 2 where Cal Odyssey also earned its spot in Friday's finals after two matches. Cal Odyssey (20-7-5), which lost last year's title match, rallied past the Internationals 2-1 on Monday to assure its finals trip. After the Fire took care of business against D.C. United, they had to wait for the outcome of the Sockers FC-De Anza Force match. Following a 1-1 draw in that match, no other team in Group 1 was in a position to reach the six points that the Fire had collected.
The Fire were the lowest-seeded team among the eight squads competing in Finals Week, ranking 21st out of 32 who were in the field. But Chicago has guaranteed its spot in the finals by playing well during recent matches, going 9-0-5 since suffering its last loss. Luis Medina connected on a liner from about 25 yards out, following an assist from Drew Conner, to give the Fire the early 1-0 lead.
"Reaching the finals means a lot to us," Luis Medina said. "We want to win the championship and to do that we need to keep focused." DC United (19-9-7) had a few chances to tie things up before halftime but Fire keeper Sam Euler was able to register some key saves. They both were provided by Dario Redondo, who was stopped on a liner and later had a shot try blocked when Euler came out of the net.
Also in the opening half, Victor Pineda sent a long free kick to keeper Dakota Niedermeier, who later stopped a liner by Manny Rios. Just after the second half began, DC United nearly got the equalizer but Cody Albrecht's close-range shot was just wide of the net. Less than two minutes later, the Fire took a 2-0 lead when Patryk Ruta flipped a pass to Jesus Medina, who connected to make it 2-0.
Neither squad threatened much after that as the Fire received a long shot from Luis Barajas and Luis Medina later hit the crossbar. The Fire defense of Keaton Albert, Peter Beasley, David Caban and Anthony Torres kept DC United at bay throughout the second half. It marked the team's eighth shutout in their last 10 matches and during the current stretch they have allowed just a pair of goals. Caban, who is believed to be the first Academy player to compete in three Finals Weeks, assured himself of his best finish so far.
He previously had helped the Chicago Magic to claim a third-place showing last season and to record a fifth-place effort in 2008. "It's a great feeling to know that I'm finally going to be in a final," Caban said. "Hopefully the third time's the charm for me."