The Chicago Fire Juniors played several matches during their trip to Mexico.
Chicago Fire

Chicago Fire Juniors: Taste of Morelia

representing 16 different high schools -- left O'Hare International on Nov. 20, to begin a journey that would not only expose them to what is fast becoming one of the top youth development programs in the world, but also to a new environment and culture. This proved to be quite a unique education for the youngsters, giving them an insight as to the life of a real professional soccer player.

Our first look at Mexican soccer was upon arrival Sunday at Morelos Stadium, home of Monarcas. The history and feel of this stadium was hard to describe. While our players stood on the field, sat on the player benches and visited the first team locker room you could feel their sense of excitement growing. This emotion was soon followed by a spirited training session at a field adjacent to the stadium -- a fine conclusion to our first day in lindo Mexico.

On Nov. 22, our boys had an early breakfast and left for training where they met their Fuerzas Basicas counterparts for the first time. Morelia is entering the playoff stage of their season and each of their youth teams has qualified to continue on -- a real tribute to the quality of this program. The technical ability and speed of play demonstrated by the young Monarcas men were a real eye-opener for our American players and something we must continue to improve upon in order to reach the top at the international level. Their training intensity was the type us coaches die for! Later on, Andres Lillini, technical director of Fuerzas Basicas, took our boys through a tactical walk-through focusing on the way Monarcas plays. It was an honor for our boys to have some time with Andres.

Game day

Our first opponent, Monarcas, was the top fourth division team in the nation. While close in age to our boys, Monarcas looked bigger, stronger, faster, and proved to be all those. An extremely technical team that executed more quickly than our boys, Monarcas enjoyed a 2-0 halftime lead which turned into a 4-0 final victory. We came to Mexico to see how we would fair against the best and we definitely saw areas for improvement.

Wednesday saw us match up against San Luis Potosi, a Mexican affiliate program of Monarcas. This was a tale of two halves and two teams. The first half saw a visible improvement in our play and an opponent with whom we were evenly matched. The CFJ took a 2-0 lead into the half and were feeling confident in their play. San Luis Potosi would answer the second half with a completely different 11. Older and better, they took the remaining 45 minutes of play at us. As altitude and fatigue really caught up to our young men, San Luis would pull away with a very strong second half and a 5-2 victory.

Exploring historic land

Thursday, Thanksgiving day. This was a day off for reflection, tourism and birthday celebrations. We made a trip to Patzcuaro, which is about 90 minutes outside of Morelia, and during our ride we all shared our thoughts on what we had seen, felt and where we wanted to take things from here. The end result was a renewed love for the game and a dedication to remembering what we had all taken part in, what we had seen and learned and using these things to inspire us as we continue our soccer journey.

Patzcuaro is a traditional colonial Mexican city. It has an historic feel, with great architecture dating back to the 1500's, markets and friendly people. Our boys met local high school students and shared conversations in the town square, even enjoying a game of (American) football.

We left Patzcuaro for a ferry ride to Isla Janitzio, where a stature of Mexican Independence hero Jose Maria Morelos stands at 200 feet. The boys loved walking the island amidst the island locals selling souveniers and trinkets but, the highlight was climbing inside the magnificent statue of Morelos and looking out at the beautiful landscape. After dinner back at the hotel, the wonderful staff at the Horizon Hotel provided a beautiful birthday cake for four of our players and guests.

Fine finish

Nov. 26 was our last game day. We were scheduled to play the fourth division team from Mexican first division power Toluca. Early preparation had us in the hotel parking lot working on our team defense. In our final game, against a strong opponent, our boys were finally able to put together 90 minutes of quality soccer. Good early play and a smothering defense lead to a 2-0 victory over Toluca and a great way to finish our match play.

Directly following the game our boys had the opportunity to visit the Casa Club. The Casa Club is the residential program of Fuerzas Basicas. Some of the top players from Mexico live to train here with Monarca's youth program. It is the heart and soul of their youth development program. It smells of soccer from the moment you enter the door. To my comment, Andres simply responded by putting his hand on his heart and saying "passion." This was what I wanted the CFJ to experience -- to feel what it is like to be truly passionate about the game. And I think they got it.

Our Mexican hosts barbequed chicken and we were treated to a great meal at the Casa Club. When we left we had two visitors on our bus that had formed new friendships: a U-17 Mexican national team player and a U-16 player who had already suited up with the second division side. Needless to say, our boys were much impressed by the two young men and their early accomplishments. They took us shopping and then we came back to the hotel to spend some time playing cards and just hanging out with our boys.

On our last day in Mexico, we cheered Monarcas Morelia's third division team on to a quarterfinal victory over Club America. Some of these same players we had met earlier at the Casa Club and on the training fields were suited up for Monarcas; it was an honor for the boys to see them compete.

This trip was just another in a long series of steps toward creating better dialogue with our sister club in Morelia. The overall quality and experience of their youth program is one to admire and from which to learn. Our relationship is just one of the opportunities that set the Chicago Fire Youth Development Programs apart from the rest. Continued visits are planned for various age groups and staff as well as teams from Fuerzas Basicas coming to visit us. I would personally like to thank the Morelia staff for going out of their way to make us feel at home and providing an experience our players will never forget.

Larry Sunderland is the director of coaching for the Chicago Fire Juniors.

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