When school is out, soccer at Chicago Fire youth camps fill void

St. Benedict Prep School’s lower-grade students visit the Fire Pitch on Jan. 21 for a field trip. (Twitter @ChicagofireSITC)

By Xiaotao Zhong
Medill Reports

The Chicago Fire Soccer in the Community outreach program fired up recreational soccer camp for children of different age groups and skill levels across the Chicago area on Presidents Day at the Fire Pitch field in Roscoe Village. The program runs holiday camps, summer camps, tournaments and classes to provide a professional platform for kids to enjoy the sport throughout the year.

“We had friends who did this program and told us about it. And we came and tried it out, and it’s just so much better (than other youth programs),” said Melissa Anezinis, mother of a 6-year-old boy who participated in the Presidents Day holiday camp for the first time. “Better coaches and better facilities, lot more kids, and it’s just been a better experience.”

In early January, when Chicago Public Schools unexpectedly shut down all classes amid a surge of COVID-19, SITC offered children an extra camp.

The programming provides children with opportunities to learn from professional coaches and get more exposure to the sport, said Sara Reilly, senior coordinator of SITC. But the main goal is to get children more involved in the game and hope they will start to fall in love with the sport as well as become a fan of the Fire.

“Our program is all about accessibility and inclusion,” she said. “Camps and our other programs are more just about having fun, learning sport and skill development, making friends. Again, just more of a recreational program.”

The primary age group for the programming is kids between 6 to 14 years old, though it also offers the Little Sparks program for younger kids. Most of the kids are beginners, though there are some medium-level players.

“We definitely believe starting kids off young gets them more interested,” Reilly said, “and kind of keeps them engaged for a longer period of time.”

Summer is when most of the camps are held, but the Chicago Fire hosts them throughout the year. Kids can learn from professional coaches and compete in teams during the outdoor Soccer in the Community summer camp. (Chicagofirefc.com)

To create a fun but intense camp environment, kids are often divided into teams by age, and coaches  make further adjustments based on a child’s ability in team sports, said Flower Edington, the lead coach of the SITC program.

Many of the kids are hoping to continue playing in high school. The SITC programming can use its relationship with high school and recommend resources and share information with kids as they proceed to the next level. For players who wish to compete on a more intensive level, they will be recommended to Fire Juniors, which is the official youth affiliate of the Chicago Fire FC.

“We are not necessarily trying to make professional players out of our program,” Reilly said. “If they end up that way, great. But again, we are just about social-emotional development, having them learn different skills while they are in our program.”

Meanwhile, the football club also hopes to build a solid fan base among younger fans through community outreach to boost soccer TV ratings and ticket sales, Reilly said.

After a dip in viewership in the 2020 season that hit mostly because of the pandemic, Major League Soccer TV ratings slowly rebounded in the following season. According to a CNBC article, MLS estimated an average of 276,000 viewers per game tuned into 31 regular season games across ESPN channels in the 2021 season. This number increased from the average 233,000 viewers who watched 39 regular season games in 2020 on ESPN platforms. Furthermore, the article also states the younger generation has become an important demographic of MLS.

The Chicago Fire FC has organized events such as autograph signings and children’s press conferences where team players would visit SITC camps or classes and interact with the kids. This helps the children meet players and engage with the Fire brand, Reilly said.

Many camp participants are fans of European soccer clubs in Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester, Reilly said. It’s hard for kids living in Chicago to go to a game so far away. “So this (Chicago Fire FC) is the most close-to-home (games) to come to,” she said.

“It is a popular sport in Chicago,” Reilly said, “But there is definitely still a lot of room for growth. And then it’s still being a quickly growing sport, so we are trying to propel that growth.”

Find more information for the camps here.

Xiaotao Zhong is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @SunnyZ_16.