The negotiation between winning and style is a constant battle among soccer enthusiasts. This is especially true at the youth level. But for emerging Chicago Fire Academy U-18 prospect Alex Underwood, it’s the Fire’s demand for both that ultimately drew him in.
After two standout high school seasons at New Trier Township in Winnetka, Underwood tried out for the Fire and other Chicago-area academy clubs back in 2011.
“I just felt like the coaches and staff of the Fire tried to drill us to play the game the right way,” Underwood said. “We like to keep the ball on the ground and that’s the way I like to play.”
Academy assistant coach Victor Fernandez stresses the Fire’s focus on developing complete soccer players.
“We emphasize with them day in and day out in training to win the ball quickly, play to feet, play the ball on the ground, and loosen up the ball,” Fernandez said.
Underwood and the Fire Academy’s style were on display last Sunday in a fiercely contested derby with cross-town rival, Chicago Magic PSG, which ended in a 2-2 draw. Underwood, a 5’11” - 150-pound right-winger with a clever right foot, stretched the Magic defense, and early on provided a pinpoint cross that led to a Collin Fernandez goal and a 1-0 lead.
He later made a cunning run of his own behind the defense, receiving the ball from the midfield, and delivered a commanding strike across goal to reclaim a 2-1 lead for the Fire.
Underwood’s connection with Fire Academy coaches was evident after the goal, when he sprinted across the field to celebrate with them.
“Alex brings a dynamic where he’s able to take players on one on one, he’s able to get behind defenders, and he gives us that spark we need going forward,” Fernandez said. “We can always count on him to respond in tough games.”
Underwood led the U-16 Academy team last year with 13 goals in 29 appearances, and has two goals early this season with the U-18’s. Fernandez describes him as a “good all-around player,” someone who finds good spots and makes great runs. “He’s a hard working kid.”
But there was a time when his work ethic was called into question.
Fernandez admitted when Underwood first came into the Fire Academy more than two years ago, “he struggled a little bit with the level of competition.”
The coaching staff saw potential and pressed him to develop his work rate and it didn’t take long for Underwood to grow accustom to the intensity of the Academy. “He’s been top notch for the last year and half,” Fernandez said.
Not surprisingly, Underwood takes inspiration from his favorite first team Fire player, Patrick Nyarko, beloved by fans for his style and work rate.
“I like Nyarko. He’s pretty active, definitely likes to take people one on one,” Underwood said. “Just never stops running and has a great engine. I try to model my game after him as much as possible.”
Underwood doesn’t possess the speed or dribbling technique of someone like Nyarko, few do, but he tries to make up for it in soccer IQ.
“He’s been working hard getting up and down the field,” Fernandez said. “His diagonal runs behind the defenders have been tremendous. That’s what has gotten him to become a better player.”
After his senior year and final season with the Fire Academy U-18’s, Underwood plans to take his talent west to play college soccer at the University of Denver.
“I really like the staff, they play a similar style to the Fire and it suited my game really well. It’s also just a really beautiful campus, really close to the city, nice atmosphere, but small enough where I felt comfortable there.”
He said he hopes to stay active with the Fire and train during summer breaks.
“I’m taking this one year at a time,” Underwood said. “But obviously I’d like to think I can play in the MLS some day.”
That’s what motivates him on the hour-long drives from Winnetka to Bridgeview four days per week, where he switches off between driving and doing his homework in the passenger seat.
“You have to make some sacrifices, but trying to play professional has been a goal of mine. This is an environment that is going to improve my game in order to achieve that goal.”