U16's to Nationals

As  time began to slip away for the Chicago Fire Academy U-15/16 team on Monday, players began to realize that they might come up a bit short of reaching their goal. And that goal was to be one of the eight teams in their age group to reach the Development Academy finals, which will take place late nextweek in Carson, California. But just as they've done during the last part of the season to earn a spot in the playoffs, the Fire didn't give up when faced with a little adversity.

So despite finding themselves down 1-0 to FC Westchester entering the 70th on their final pool match in Browns Summit, North Carolina, things weren't over. That point was driven home during the next five minutes as Chicago responded with a pair of scores from Victor Pineda to rally for a 2-1 victory at Bryan Park. As a result of the victory, the Fire (14-5-10) finished with a 2-0-1 mark to win Pool A over Arsenal FC, which went 2-1, with that loss coming against the Fire.

Chicago remained unbeaten in its last 12 matches, improving to 6-0-6 since suffering its last loss, a 1-0 defeat to the Kansas City Wizards on May 15.The Fire entered the day needing either a win or a draw coupled with a tie or loss for Arsenal, who wound up winning its match over the Concorde Fire. That forced Chicago to rally for the victory, which didn't come easily against an FC Westchester squad that also had a chance to move on entering the day.Thanks to the late heroics, the Fire become the first U-16 squad from the Academy to earn a spot in the national finals, which consists of eight teams.

Joining the Fire in Group 1 at the Home Depot Center will be Frontier Division rival Sockers FC, which beat host Greensboro on Tuesday to also advance.The other two teams in that group are DeAnza Force and DC United. CASL Chelsea FC, Internationals, Baltimore Bays Chelsea and Cal Odyssey round out the field.

Now the U-16s wait to see if they'll be joined by the Fire U-18s, who need to beat the Baltimore Bays Chelsea on Tuesday morning to earn a trip to nationals. Chicago dominated the attack during the second half but were frustrated in its attempts to get the ball past FC Westchester keeper Alex Kapp. The Fire's big opportunity finally came during the 71st minute when Pineda lined up for a corner kick and then sent it directly toward the net. Kapp tried to punch the attempt away but instead the ball went into the net and suddenly things were tied and the Fire had much-needed momentum.

In the 75th minute, Keaton Albert sent a nice pass upfield toward Pineda, who got past defenders and started to head toward FC Westchester's net. As Kapp came out of the net to try to stop him, Pineda went by and suddenly found himself with a potential open-net goal to put his team ahead.But the ball didn't cooperate and kept bouncing around, forcing Pineda to take some time to gain control of it before connecting from close range. After that, it was up to the Fire defense to keep the New York squad from coming back with an equalizer that would have dashed their renewed hopes.

FC Westchester did have one good opportunity in the late going when a long free kick went into traffic before a shot eventually sailed over the net. The Fire had plenty of good chances throughout the final half but were just a bit off on several of them while Kapp also came up with some big stops. Henrik Egly got things started with a corner kick that was deflected away and on the subsequent corner, Elliot Borge was stopped on a close attempt. A few minutes after that, Pineda sent a pass forward to Luis Medina, but the FC Westchester keeper disrupted the play to halt a possible scoring try.

Just over 10 minutes into the new half, Kapp came out of the net to make a stop up top but Pineda was unable to head a shot attempt into an open net. Anthony Torres and Luis Medina were stopped on shot tries a short time later and then Patryk Ruta was wide on a header before sending a liner to Kapp.

FC Westchester only managed one good shot during that early stretch of the final half but Fire keeper Sam Euler hauled in a liner from David Alemany. It was a different story in the opening half, however, as the New Yorkers hoped to take advantage of a possible Fire letdown after the Arsenal match.

Euler had to come up with some big saves during the early going but he wasn't able to stop a shot attempt from Andres Penfold during the 13th minute. Meanwhile, the Fire struggled offensively in the first half and had few good chances to get the equalizer as FC Westchester took a 1-0 halftime lead.