In Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, a group of twenty-somethings is playing soccer on artificial turf made slippery by a gentle falling rain. It’s just after 9 p.m. as the group takes a break and talks about the U.S. team. The conversation isn’t about who’s in the starting lineup. It’s more about who’s not on this year’s U.S. World Cup team: star forward Landon Donovan.
The future of U.S. soccer is a popular talking point. Nine of the roster’s 23 players are 25 or younger. Everyone’s eyes are on the team’s coach, former German striker Jurgen Klinsmann. Depending on how the U.S. performs, he’ll either be criticized for cutting the most popular U.S. soccer star or hailed for a genius move.
At Small Bar on Division, U.S. fans gathered to watch their team play Azerbaijan in a friendly pre World Cup game. Here’s where you’ll find the Chicago chapter of the American Outlaws. It’s
the biggest booster club for the U.S team, boasting 18,000 members around the country. Super fan Kevin Harris is disappointed Donovan won’t be on the team, but says that move won’t be a big part of the Klinsmann’s legacy.
“He was brought in to help with the youth program, academies, things like that,” says Harris. “So we have this funnel of young players that are coming in that can then take over and join a squad.”
Major League Baseball has the minors to get new talent. The NFL and NBA get young prospects from colleges. That kind of set up doesn’t exist for soccer. Klinsmann wants to develop a system to build stronger learning centers, so-called academies, to improve soccer training.
Ultimately, Klinsmann wants to create an academy system to create the next team for the World Cup.
A few would-be soccer stars gather under the hot sun at Toyota Park to watch the Chicago Fire practice. The group of 10 and 11 year olds traveled from New Orleans. They’re part of the Fire’s youth development league. The Fire has 10 clubs in 7 states. This team, the Louisiana Fire, is not only watching how the MLS players do their thing. The kids are getting a workout of their own, getting drilled by academy coaches. After a sweaty scrimmage, the boy surround Fire players like Victor Pineda.
“I can relate. I still have signed balls and shirts at home,” says Pineda as he signs autographs for kids who turn quiet and shy around the Fire player. “It’s awesome. Something you’ll remember forever.”
Pineda is from Chicago and he’s one of the Fire’s homegrown academy players. He’s a 21 year old midfielder with the Fire, but he hasn’t seen much playing time yet. Years ago, he tried out for the under 17 World Cup but was cut from the final squad.
“When you don't’ make a team like that I think it makes you work harder and want it even more,” he says.
With players his age in the World Cup, reaching the pinnacle of the sport, Pineda says being with the Fire is great because he gets to live out the same dreams kids from Louisiana, Chicago and around the globe hope to experience one day.
“I’ve been playing since I was five. So I don’t have a reason to give up now. So I think I just want to keep working.”