The Chicago Fire Academy made history in 2014, becoming the first Academy program from MLS and U.S. to participate in the prestigious Al Kass International Cup in Doha, Qatar.
The opportunity allowed the program a spotlight on the international stage and the chance to compete with the likes of FC Barcelona, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain FC and Real Madrid CF. And although the '98 Academy left the tournament winless, they certainly didn’t return empty-handed.
“Regardless of the results, our players and staff took invaluable experience from competing against some of the world’s best youth programs,” said Academy Director and Head Coach Larry Sunderland. “The lessons learned both on and off the pitch provided us with a progressive understanding of what it takes to compete at the international level, and allowed us as a staff to evaluate areas we can improve upon as a program and educate our players on how to become world-class players.”
In addition to the learning experience, many of the players took away a sense of pride from being on the same field as Manchester City, FC Porto and Aspire Qatar, and rightfully so. As Sunderland pointed out, these clubs were among some of the best around the globe.
“They are some of the most respected and talented clubs in the world,” said Sunderland. “Their players are future pros and national team players. Their competitive nature is second to none. Every player there was looking to make a statement, catch an eye, get a chance with their first team — It was football at its best.”
The '98 Academy went in to the tournament as clear underdogs, but it was a challenge that Sunderland embraced for his players.
“Clearly, being an underdog is a difficult label to carry through an entire tournament,” he said. “Maintaining a competitive mentality while defending long segments of a game is very trying. I think this was our biggest challenge, but for the most part we held up.
“We are competitive and try very hard to play the game the way it is played at the highest level around the world. However, we are still very young and naïve. We still play like we don’t necessarily belong yet, which is something that can only change with experience and continued exposure to clubs and tournaments like this.”
In all fairness, the '98 Academy had their work cut out for them, competing against top-notch programs that have an incredible edge in recruiting the very best athletes from around the world and dedicating a tremendous amount of resources towards their growth and development. Sunderland noted that many of the other clubs had vigorously groomed their players at a very young age by specialists who monitor their body mechanics, agility and reaction time.
“This has an enormous impact down line as these players become 15, 16 years old — it adds up.”
Even so, the '98 Academy shouldn’t go overlooked. Despite the level of competition, the squad put up quite a fight to a team like Manchester City — and after coming off of a one-month hiatus, a long day of travelling and back-to-back matches to kick off the tournament. Nonetheless, the Academy presented a challenge to City right off the bat, taking a 1-0 lead in the opening minutes and maintaining a level score at the half. They kept the game tight at 2-1 for majority of the second half until fatigue took over in the 81st minute, allowing City to finish with a barrage of goals in the 6-1 defeat.
“Fatigue was absolutely an issue,” Sunderland said of his squad’s second-half collapse. “We hit a physical and mental wall around the 80th minute, and it was game over. But honestly, Man City has a great team, and they would have beaten us nine times out of 10.
“They have top players from all over the world — Mexico, Sweden, Ghana, and they live together, train together and have tremendous resources available to them. They are a very good squad — as every team there was. But we are gaining on them, thanks to Andrew Hauptman. We are investing in our youth, and these events will significantly accelerate our learning curve and expose us to the same levels of competition these clubs see on a regular basis.”
The talent pool wasn’t the only impressive facet of the experience, though. The tournament hosts provided their guests with some of the best accommodations and facilities for training and recreational activity.
“The Aspire Campus provides a world-class training and educational environment unlike anything we have seen for soccer in the United States,” said Academy Manager Kyle Retzlaff. “The soccer stadium and training fields are at a professional level, and the fitness center, indoor facility, classrooms and accommodations provide professional and amateur athletes a world-class place to train and play.”
For those who questioned whether or not Qatar was ready and capable of hosting a World Cup, the Academy’s experience certainly indicates that the country is more than prepared to put forth one of the most riveting World Cup experiences in tournament history.
“Qatar and Doha, in particular, is a beautiful city that has recently matured into one of the world’s premier cities,” said Retzlaff. “The 2022 World Cup will undoubtedly be one of the best World Cups to date. The commitment of the people, government and QFA to provide one of the best World Cup environments is unquestioned. I believe that the 2022 experience will be extraordinary and a fantastic showcase of the country.”
Beyond the pitch, Retzlaff alluded to the quality of the people and environment, noting that they were among the most interesting and captivating. In interacting with the people and exploring the surrounding areas, the team was able to take away a unique cultural experience, as well.
The boys visited several exquisite sites during their downtime, including the Sealine Beach on the Persian Gulf in southern Qatar and the Souq Waqif, a local market in Doha. The experience also included swimming in the Gulf, riding camels, shopping and enjoying the local cuisine. Needless to say, it was an experience of a lifetime.
“I just want to extend a special thanks to the organizers of the tournament and our owner Andrew Hauptman for making this opportunity possible for our Academy program,” said Sunderland. “We were very honored to have been invited, and our players, staff and program took tremendous pride and experience from participating in the 2014 edition.”
The Academy has high hopes for a repeat invitation to the tournament in the future and confidence in returning as a stronger, more competitive program. When asked if he would have done anything differently this time around, Sunderland had this to say:
“No. One of the things we Americans do well is accept a challenge. We have a challenge ahead of us, and this was a first step toward us meeting and bettering that challenge.”