As the quality of play increases every season in MLS, it is apparent that something new is facilitating the influx of talent throughout the U.S. Some say that just having a top-flight league like MLS has helped the sport grow in this country, and while that may seem accurate, there is another major factor that has contributed to the quality of its players. The idea of supporting soccer clubs and youth development programs in regions surrounding MLS teams has caught on well, and the programs are beginning to pay dividends.
The Chicago Fire have paved the way in the area of youth development both in MLS and in the Midwest, as the team has been involved first-hand in the training and supporting of individual players and teams since 2001 with the creation of the Chicago Fire Academy. Through a well-designed and well-managed pyramid structure, the Chicago Fire runs year-round camps and supplemental training programs for select players. The Fire's desire to nurture the sport is such that in 2003, the club also helped create the Chicago Fire Juniors, a travel team that began in Wheaton, Ill., and has been so successful it has recently expanded into Michigan and Wisconsin. The Fire also support the Chicago Fire Reserves, an ongoing success story that finished off their 2004 Premier Development League (PDL) regular season in July with an undefeated 17-0-1 record.
And after a three-year investment in Chicago-area soccer, the Chicago Fire has been re-paid in the form of Denny Clanton, a rookie defender that was selected 38th overall by the Fire at the 2004 MLS SuperDraft.
A Chicago-area native, the 22-year-old Clanton was a First-Team All-State selection and a Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times All-Area player while attending Waubonsie Valley in Aurora, Ill. After his high school days, Clanton played for the University of Dayton, where he received several accolades including All-Ohio Player of the Year and First Team All-Atlantic 10 Conference honors during his senior year.
Before joining MLS, Clanton was an original member of the Chicago Fire Reserves and was named the 2002 PDL Defender of the Year after an impressive season. He is the first Reserves player to see playing time on the Fire's senior squad.
"The whole day of the draft, every time Chicago would come up to pick I had my fingers crossed. That was the place I wanted to go the most and when they did it was really a dream come true," recalls Clanton. "It felt great because that was the whole point of the Fire Reserves, to get scouted by different MLS teams and, obviously by the Fire. All that hard work with the Reserves, it felt like it paid off."
Since joining the Fire, Clanton has been working hard to impress the coaches and his fellow teammates. He was rewarded for his effort when Fire head coach Dave Sarachan named Clanton to the starting 11 for the Fire's home match against San Jose on June 19. The match marked Clanton's first career MLS start, which he didn't know about until he was in the locker room at Soldier Field. The defender had enough time to call friends and family to make sure they would see him take his place on the field for pre-game introductions.
"I didn't really know I was starting until I got into the locker room before the game. When I saw that, it was kind of a surprise and right away I was nervous. But once I got out there and started warming up, my nerves were gone and I was just ready to play."