The Chicago Fire U23s, the club’s entry into the United Soccer Leagues Premier Development League, begin their 2014 schedule Saturday night with a familiar face leading the team in the form of former PDL head coach Mike Matkovich.
“It feels good to be back working with up-and-coming players,” Matkovich told Chicago-Fire.com. “The PDL is an important part of the club’s player development pyramid and something I’ve got some experience with.”
The long-time Chicago-based youth coach, who also has served in two stints as an assistant with the club’s first team, took back the reins of the PDL side this offseason after leading the team through some of its most successful years from 2002-2006.
Back then and through most of their existence in the PDL, the team was made up of some of the best collegiate players from around the country. Matkovich coached the likes of future U.S. World Cup players Jay DeMerit, Ricardo Clark and Brad Guzan as well as MLS mainstays Ned Grabavoy, Danny O’Rourke and Chris Rolfe.
His teams won division titles all five seasons he was at the helm and took the 2003 side to the North American championship game where they fell 2-0 to the Cape Cod Crusaders.
But when Matkovich leads the team out against longtime rivals Michigan Bucks Saturday night at Ultimate Soccer Arenas in Pontiac, Mich., the roster will be different. That’s because the club is now in its third season of using the PDL almost completely as a place for its own Academy alumni to play in the summer.
The first fruits of the transition which took place in 2012 came in the way of this year’s first team signings Harry Shipp and Chris Ritter, who used their time with the Fire PDL team as part of fulfilling their Homegrown eligibility.
“We want to create an environment that’s going to allow the next Shipp or Ritter to get acclimated to the professional game,” said Matkovich. “These days not enough colleges are letting their kids play PDL matches in the summer and it’s not good for their development. They’re playing short seasons and the culture shock with the jump to a 10 or 11 month professional season leaves a lot of kids behind.”
“For the Fire at least, the PDL team is there to give an extension of that process for when the Academy kids leave for college and come back. The club is still in the early stages of the Academy setup but a few years down the line, we’ll be filling this team from freshman to seniors of strong alumni – it’s evolving in a good way.”