BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- Earlier this year, 11 Chicago Fire Academy players inked their initial college commitments.
While most aren't stepping straight into the first team, Major League Soccer's Homegrown Initiative allows for clubs to retain the rights to Academy players as they further their development at the collegiate level.
“I think over the years now we are going to see a pretty good pipeline that go to college for a couple years and are ready to go with the first team,” said Fire Academy Director Larry Sunderland.
Academy standout Marcus Epps (top left) agreed to play for South Florida.
“On my visit I really enjoyed the staff, style of play and environment on and off the field,” Epps said. “The education and coaching staff seemed to fit me.”
A telling stat, the Academy players amassed 14 appearances for the Chicago Reserve side in 10 games in 2012.
Epps, who played in three Reserve games in 2012, had offers on the table from Butler, Georgetown, St. Louis and Louisville.
He said that his time with the Academy smoothed over his jump to the next level. Epps joined the Fire Academy after coming up through the Mississippi Fire Juniors.
“The Fire Academy was a great step to take before college, the speed of play and discipline,” Epps said. “The coaching staff got me ready for this environment. The competition we had really helped me transition to college.”
Epps has an innate talent that few players are born with.
"He was a good player we scouted a little bit,” Sunderland said. “A really unique player, Marcus is extremely fortunate to possess a gift to take people on. He’s got a lot of pace out on the flank.”
Epps had a lasting first impression with Sunderland. The raw talent got thrown into the fire playing for the Reserve side against Colorado in his first weekend on August 15, 2012.
“He responded admirably out wide,” Sunderland added.
Cody Witkowski chose to stay local and don the Northern Illinois jersey.
“I’m just really excited for the opportunity to play some Division I soccer,” Witkowski said. “I’m excited to start playing there because they have done a good job promoting the team.”
Witkowski had offers from several credible programs including Louisville, St. Louis and UIC.
He credits his time with the Academy team for putting him in prime position to play in college. Witkowski has appeared on the bench in previous reserve games and played in a preseason match with the first team earlier this year.
“It’s been great, I’m really blessed with all the exposure they give out,” Witkowski said. “Larry has been a tremendous coach the past three years. Playing Reserve games got my name out to coaches.”
The journey with the Academy team started six years ago for Witkowski, according to Sunderland he admits that finding a position that fit for the center back was a challenge at times.
“He did it, it took him a little bit of time,” Sunderland said. “He settled in, and we had to find a position for him that made sense for his skill set.”
The NIU program has recent success having qualified for the two NCAA tourney appearances in the past seven years, with the most recent coming a year ago.
The remaining list of 2013 Academy signees includes Daniel Szczepanek and Louis Bennett (Marquette), Craig Zahour (Ohio State), A.J. Jeffries (Louisville), Christian Lomelli and Manny Rios (IUPUI), Kyle Dal Santo (Southern Illinois Edwardsville), A.R. Smith (Bulter) and Chris Rassell (Davenport).
The Fire U-16 and U-18 Academy sides return to USSF Development Academy action next weekend as they welcome Minnesota Thunder and Shattuck-St Mary’s to Toyota Park.