Fire branching out in Midwest

They dress like the Chicago Fire. They train similar to the Fire. The only difference is - there are hundreds of them. They range in age from eight to 23, depending on location. They play in two states. They come in all colors, shapes and sizes. They're boys and girls. They are the Fire Juniors.

These young soccer players have an opportunity unique to soccer in the United States. They are members of the Chicago Fire's Youth Development Program. The club originated in Wheaton as the Chicago Fire Juniors and began spreading throughout the Midwest. Last month, they expanded into Michigan as the West Michigan Fire Juniors and just last week, the Fire expanded north into Milwaukee, Wisc. by forming a partnership with the Elm Grove Soccer Club.

The pyramid style program is the first for any Major League Soccer team. The Fire's mission is to look for talented players to grow through a common club. Players will be able to advance to the different levels, thus getting similar training techniques year after year. They begin as recreational players and may advance to professional play if they desire.

"As far as an overall vision, we wanted to replicate programs in Europe, Central America, South America and Mexico, where the professional clubs are the ones responsible for youth development," said Roland Hahn, director of youth development for the Chicago Fire. "It is the responsibility of a professional team to be more active in youth development. We need to take advantage of the knowledge we have to develop players. Our coaches know what today's players are missing."

In just its second year of existence, the Chicago Fire Juniors are now the biggest club team in Illinois with 900 children competing on 62 teams. As for the newly-formed team in West Michigan, the club is looking to bring 250-300 children in its first year, with the ages ranging from nine to 19.

"We're the largest club in the State of Illinois," said Daryl Shore, assistant coach for the Chicago Fire and technical director of the Fire's youth program. "Now when these kids get on the field, their opponents are shooting for them. They feel they have something to prove. There is a little added something on our kids to perform well. We want to be one of the most successful clubs, not only in the country. We know it's going to take time. "

The clubs are separated into three levels: academy, select and competitive.

"Every team is selected based on ability but is commitment driven," continued Hahn. "On the academy level you will travel more and train more, it's a bigger commitment. Children and parents may not be up for that. The players can still attend every practice we have. We have had very good results with academy level teams. We have some areas that need improvement. The key is improvement and we've seen that."

The Chicago Fire Juniors hope to expand throughout the Midwest. Their first step to Michigan is still in the early stages. But, the administrators believe the club is on the right track.

"You have to take baby steps before you can walk," said Shore. "Going into Michigan is a step in the right direction. You don't want to have a product out there that you can't be proud of. If you expand too vastly you can get in trouble with that. If we're going to do this, we're going to do it the right way."

Every year the number of American children playing soccer in the United States rises. The Chicago Fire decided to take a leadership role in the development of youth soccer in the U.S.

"The model in many ways is to start from the ground up, to build a connection and an infrastructure," said Chicago Fire head coach Dave Sarachan. "It can only be good for the development of players and our team. It's exciting for the young players."

The Fire has started a program that other MLS teams may look to emulate. They are looking out for the development of the youth and are insuring their team a pool of talented players to choose from. It's a new beginning for the youth players in the Midwest. For the Fire, the administrators are happy with the results they've gotten so far and are optimistic about the future.