Chicago Fire PDL sees benefit in shift to developing Academy alumni

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- Since coming into existence in 2001, the Chicago Fire PDL side has historically been one of the most successful franchises in the USL’s Premier Development League.

U.S. internationals Brad Guzan, Ricardo Clark and Jonathan Spector all spent time with the side before going pro and the team even proved fruitful in the development of current Fire first teamers Chris Rolfe and Austin Berry.

But with Major League Soccer’s Homegrown Initiative now in full effect, times have changed. Gone are the days where the team would draw in some of the top collegiate talent around the nation and go full-force for the PDL’s North American title.

First-year PDL head coach Mark Prizant

Instead, beginning last year, the club’s top amateur entry refocused its efforts on utilizing Academy alumni with the goal being to further develop Homegrown talents for the first team.

READ: Chicago Fire PDL & Super-20 Home Page

After head coach Mark Spooner departed to take a job with Birmingham City last winter, the Fire PDL is being led this season by Mark Prizant (right) from the club’s Florida Fire Juniors affiliate and an assistant coach at Florida Gulf Coast University.

The re-shifting of the team’s focus to develop for the first team was what sold Prizant on heading north to lead the team for the summer.

“I think its great -- its an evolution. It makes more sense in terms of the Homegrown player push and movement.

"Although it’s great I think to bring in the college all-stars and to get a look at guys that you could potentially draft, with this you get the opportunity to have the homegrown guys in for a few months, keep tabs on their development, potentially get them into training some with the first team and see what adjusts in their potential.

“The idea behind that is really where I think a majority of MLS teams should be looking in the future, which is building your own need.”

Two players that could benefit the most from the team’s shift of focus are midfielders Bryan Ciesulka (Naperville; Marquette University) and Tyler Engel (Orland Park; University of North Carolina) with both being seen as potential Homegrown signings for the club down the road.

Ciesulka (right) is now into his third season with the Fire PDL side while Engel has begun his second.

Fire PDL midfielder Bryan Ciesulka

“Bryan’s a crafty little attacking midfielder,” said Prizant. “His ability to play at speed under pressure and to solve situations is very unique. I would imagine that Bryan will get some looks at the next level.

"He’s the kind of guy that you like to see the league moving forward, and evolve to. He’s the crafty play maker who can really keep the ball on the floor and keep the game flowing.”

“Tyler is a unique player. He can play anywhere in the wide midfield or attacking four, I would say.  He’s a proven goal score and has a lot of potential in terms of physical [play].

"I think technically he’s moving along to try and match that with the physical, and, at the end of the day, guys who are proven goal scorers, they tend to get opportunities.”

Both players say their aim is to one day suit up for the first team and coming through the Academy and PDL system has only furthered their desire.

“I hope so one day,” Ciesulka said about signing a first-team contract. “Just being in the atmosphere, you know, you’re right next to the first team guys and it just makes you want to work harder in practice so you can catch someone’s eye at one point.”

“To get to the pro level is my ambition,” agreed Engel. “It starts when you’re young but now we’ve gone through the whole process. Just one more step and we’ll be there.”

The PDL side is 1-1-0 through two matches so far this season. The team defeated K-W United (Hamilton, Ontario) 1-0 on May 26 before falling 3-1 Saturday at River City Rovers (Louisville).

Fire PDL midfielder Tyler Engel

READ: Chicago Fire Academy Home

While the desire to win is still there, the overall goal of developing players for the first team admittedly makes actual results slightly less important that they used to be.

“I think we’ve set the standard that this program is about development. It’s about keeping tabs on homegrown guys, about continuing their development, and monitoring them moving forward.

“We’re not the strongest team in the PDL but I will say, it’s nice to have guys out there who really understand each other.

"That’s unique amongst PDL teams and with the majority of these guys coming from within our own system, being Homegrown, they understand what it means to play the Fire way, what it means to try to keep possession, to try to ball hunt, to do those things that are preached at the Academy level.”

While results won’t be what comes first for the amateur side this year, there’s no doubt that winning Wednesday’s home match vs. local rivals the Chicago Inferno (3pm Toyota Park Turf Field) will be one game they want to count in the win column.

Prizant knows he doesn’t need to do much in terms of motivation.

“For those guys who have been in in the various Chicago vs. Chicago matches in the years in the Academy, its one of those things that I don’t need to say. I don’t need to get them any more motivated for the game.

“It’s my job to keep them focused on the task at hand as opposed to pumping them up. It’s safe to say that those guys are self-motivated when it comes to those big games.”