Dev. Academy Notes: As MLS expands, so does Chicago's academy

As MLS continues its rapid growth, it only seems logical that club-run youth initiatives would follow suit and expand as well.

Last week, the Chicago Fire announced plans to expand their existing youth academy. At the moment, the core of the Chicago Fire Academy program is the two youth teams competing in the USSF Development Academy League at the U-16 and U-18 level, with a number of affiliates spread across the country.

“We need to take what we’ve got and build on it,” Chicago’s director of youth development John Dorn told MLSsoccer.com. “What we’ve set up here is a good framework, it’s a good starting point, but it will really get things in house for us.”

As a result, this expansion will increase not only the quality of Chicago’s youth program but also the presence of the Fire Academy at the Toyota Park facilities by adding six new teams to the mix.

Competing in the Midwest Developmental League in US Club Soccer’s National Premier Leagues, Chicago’s expanded academy will offer playing opportunities from the U-13 through U-18 levels, giving more players in the Chicagoland area the chance to don the Fire uniform.

The recently launched Midwest Developmental League aims to provide elite competition at more age levels. This will include some of the region’s top youth clubs, along with teams run by Sporting KC and the Columbus Crew.

“It’s as close to an Academy League as we can get below 16, cost-effective, run regionally and done the right way,” Dorn said.

Chicago’s new teams will be built through open tryouts to be held later this summer, and players currently on local Fire Juniors affiliates will have a chance to join the academy program as well.

The cream of the crop will remain on the U-16 and U-18 Development Academy teams, allowing the Fire to add a second tier of teams at those two age levels. In all, the program increases the number of youth players coming in and training at Toyota Park.

“It gives us greater opportunity for identification and development, and it’s great for the kids, too, because on a daily basis they’re playing and they’re part of the academy,” Dorn said.

Action for the U-13s and U-14s will begin in the fall, while older age groups will start playing in the spring of 2012.

Horton signing could be first of Crew's many

It was only a matter of time before the Columbus Crew signed their first Home Grown player. The Crew’s long wait ended Tuesday, when they signed 19-year-old Louisville forward Aaron Horton to a multi-year deal.

With the first in the books, the wait for a second Home Grown signing might not be too far off.

With talented young players like Wil Trapp, Chad Barson and Andrew Souders coming through the ranks, there’s little doubt another signing might happen sooner rather than later.

In other Crew Academy news, a University of Akron spokesman confirmed that former academy product Ben Speas will transfer and play elsewhere this fall.

Dynamo U-16s close in on playoff spot

Unbeaten through five Development Academy matches in May, the Houston Dynamo’s U-16s are close to clinching a playoff spot with two games left to play.

Despite having a six-game winning streak halted by a 0-0 draw with the Dallas Texans last weekend, the Dynamo youth side is currently in second place in the Texas Division. They have a high enough points-per-game total that should they fall outside the top two, they’ll qualify with ease through the wild card process.

The Dynamo U-16s Development Academy regular season ends early in order to accommodate a trip to Holland from June 4-14 to compete against top Dutch youth clubs in the Eurovoetbal Tournament.

Travis Clark covers D.C. United, College and Youth soccer for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter: @travismclark.