Familiar Fire Faces

As the Chicago Fire gear up for DC United Saturday night, the first team will lineup against a few faces familiar to the organization. United players Brandon Barklage, Thabiso Khumalo and Barry Rice all came through the Fire PDL team prior to moving to Major League Soccer. While the three are teammates now, they all represented the club at different times: Khumalo (2004), Barklage (2008), Rice (2009)

It’s a pretty common occurrence considering the Fire PDL side is currently represented by 18 players across 11 teams in Major League Soccer. Holding the record among PDL teams for most players drafted by MLS clubs, the Fire PDL has 36 players currently playing professionally in MLS, the USSF Second Division and abroad, reaching from right here in Chicago all the way to the Premiership and Bundesliga.

“It’s a program that has a proven track record of producing great professional players,” said Khumalo. “It’s fun to look back and see so many of the guys you played with also playing professionally.”

Khumalo spent the 2004 season with the Fire PDL, lining up with the likes of Brad Guzan (Aston Villa, England), Drew Moor (Colorado Rapids), Vedad Ibisevic (1899 Hoffenheim, Germany) as well as current Fire defender Dasan Robinson and former forward Chris Rolfe (Aalborg BK, Denmark).

Appearing in 12 matches, recording eight goals, “Boyzzz” was eventually selected by the club in the following year’s MLS SuperDraft but never played a game with the first team. After bouncing around the USL First and Second Divisions and making a playing return to South Africa, Khumalo found his way back to MLS with DC United at the end of 2008.

“The Fire PDL helped me get going in the right direction for my career. Things didn’t work out for me with the first team but I’m thankful for the preparation I received, playing with and against some of the best players in the country and doing it all with such a well-run organization.”

United defender Barry Rice was a constant on the backline last season for the Fire PDL side, appearing in 13 matches and helping backstop the team to the North American Championship match. While 10 players from that team were selected in this year’s SuperDraft, Rice was passed over by all MLS teams in the January curtain raiser. Earning an invite to United training camp, Rice claimed a place on the club’s first team roster last month.

“Seeing so many of the guys I played with last summer get drafted -- there was a bit of disappointment when it didn’t happen for me,” said Rice. “It just made me more determined and I grabbed the chance with D.C. in preseason.”

Unfortunately Rice won’t have the chance to appear in Saturday night’s clash, sustaining a concussion earlier in the week, he’s being kept out of the lineup as a precaution.

“It’s too bad, I would have liked to be available for selection against a club I have a history with. I have a lot of good memories from last summer – playing in the U.S. Open Cup, coming so close to winning a PDL championship – we had so many good players on that team and it shows from all the guys that are on MLS rosters this season.”

For Fire Director of Player Development John Dorn there’s little surprise that the three made it to Major League Soccer.

“All three certainly showed potential to get to the next level and that’s why we brought them in when we did,” said Dorn. “We had them all on our radar screen and wanted to see if they had the ability to get to the next level. The PDL operation is about identifying and researching players for the first team. We looked at selecting all three guys but Boyzzz was the only one we took. Things didn’t work out with him here but he’s still a good player – all three are. We’re proud to have had them come through the Fire system.”

The Fire take on D.C. United tonight at 6:30 pm CT at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.