Fire Academy Update

The Chicago Fire U14 Academy did well to close out the fall segment of their inaugural season this past weekend, finishing as runners-up at the prestigious Disney Junior Showcase in Orlando, FL.

The tournament culminated what has been an unconventional schedule for the first-year team. Unlike the club’s U16 and U18 Academy teams, there is no sanctioned regional or national elite level league for U14 Academy sides, which means the team has to travel outside the region to play friendlies against other high-level age groups.

“It’s a challenge for the U14s sometimes,” said the club’s Director of Player Development John Dorn. “They’re doing the same high-level training as the U16 and U18 Academy every week but aren’t playing in a league. We don’t look to results as the sole indicator of success but playing in games that mean something does help develop a player. That’s the Disney Showcase and other tournaments are important for the U14s.”

Though they don’t have a bonafide league to play in, they’ve been impressive along the way, racking up a 10-2-0 record heading into last week’s tournament.

While missing holding midfielder Shannon Seymour who was at the Showcase playing with the U14 Boy’s National Team, the side was also able to bring in three guest players, welcoming Christian Canales and Julian Sutton from the Chicago Fire Juniors of Louisiana and Zach Bailey from the club’s Mississippi affiliate.

They certainly clicked early on as Louisiana’s Canales tallied the team’s first goal of the tournament off a feed from Mississippi’s Zach Bailey in the 17th minute of the opening match against Dallas Solar. Mike Jimenez added a 44th minute goal and setup Colin Fernandez for the icing strike in the 57th minute, as the Fire came away 3-1 winners.

“It’s always good to get the best players from our affiliate clubs because it gives an idea of the level of play those kids are at,” said Dorn.” All three of them are the best on their respective teams and they all came in and contributed.”

Having to play two matches the next day and knowing on the group winners would advance, the U14s met Concorde Fire (GA), who had won their tournament opener 4-2 against Lehigh Valley United (PA) the night before.

Renewing the partnership from the previous night, Jimenez opened the scoring in the first minute off a feed from Fernandez with the two connecting again in the 21st and taking a 2-0 lead into the break.

Just after the interval, U14 keeper Jorge Trujillo was sent off as he took down a Concorde attacker as the last man back. A man down, Sawyer Jackman entered in reserve of Trujillo, playing admirably and giving up only a 50th minute penalty after a hand ball in the box.

The U14s held on to win 2-1 and given the other group result, were guaranteed a place in Sunday morning’s semifinal. The club elected to rest several players and lost 3-0 to Lehigh Valley United that night.

Sunday morning the Fire took on Lone Star SC (Austin, TX), falling behind early to a 3rd minute strike from distance. The side fought back though with Jimenez tallying his fourth goal of the tournament of another assist from Fernandez in the 22nd minute.

Mere seconds after the interval, CFJ Mississippi’s Zach Bailey scored the goal that would put the side in the final with Elias Levya providing the assist in the 36th minute. Having returned from his one-game suspension, Trujillo backstopped, coming up with a number of crucial saves as the Fire staved off pressure and with a 2-1 win, advanced to the tournament’s championship match that afternoon.

Final opponents Baltimore Bays Chelsea have been a familiar foe for the club, knocking the U18 Academy out of the USSFDA national playoffs earlier this summer in Greensboro, NC and the younger side put the Fire down early, tallying in the 9th minute.

Juan Carlos Lujan responded just three minutes later to pull the score level but Bays pulled two goals back in quick succession, taking a 3-1 lead by the 17th minute.

Trailing by two, the second half was dominated by the Fire but the team wasted chance after chance, failing to cut into the lead until Zach Bailey popped up with his second goal of the tournament in the 55th minute making things 3-2.

Trujillo again turned away a number of efforts as the Fire were cut without numbers back as they looked for the equalizer. The third goal never came though and the side finished the competitive part of 2011 as runners up at the Showcase and with a final record of 13-4-0.

“There was certainly disappointment in coming that close and losing but Larry {Sunderland] had a very good line after the final. He said something along the lines of: ‘We’ve come a long way, I think we have work to do still but if we do it right this isn’t going to be the only championship game you guys play in.’”

“I think that really hit home with the kids and it sums up how the first segment of the year has gone with this team. We’ve come a long way, seeing where they’re at at the end of November was good. If we would have gone down and played this tournament in September, the results might not have been the same, but as we close the book on this part of the season,  which is unchartered territory for us, I think we can say we’ve had a lot of success.”

What’s next for the U14 Academy? Plenty says Dorn.

“Our soccer year started in August and will go through to the early summer,” said Dorn. “When we started the 14’s academy program we talked about putting them in the environment of an academy setting, using a lot of training and not as many games as most clubs play. The key things when it comes to games and competition at the U14 age level are Disney and the Dallas Cup as the preeminent competitions for clubs in the U.S. and even outside. The certainly here at home our biggest barometer is State Cup and regional competitions.”

With the arrival of winter weather in Chicagoland, the U14s will join their Academy brethren indoors for training throughout the cold months, training just down the street…

“Now we’re going to go inside at the refurbished Bridgeview Dome for the winter. It’ll be the same amount of training that the U16 and U18 Academy teams do – there’s no difference. We’ll get back outside in April, go down to Dallas and see how far the team has progressed. After that, the final point here at home is State Cup and then hopefully regional and national competition after that.”

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