Chicago Fire U18s light up opponents

Luis Barajas (right) said the Chicago Fire Under-17/18 team was determined to bounce back from a poor start. Now the team is the division frontrunner. Courtesy of Chicago Fire

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Following season-opening losses to the Minnesota Thunder and Shattuck-Saint Mary's, Chicago Fire midfielder Louis Barajas said he and his Under-17/18 teammates made a decision to not lose again.

"We're looking for the challenge to go undefeated the whole rest of the season," said Barajas, whose Fire leads the Great Lakes Division of the Central Conference in U.S. Soccer Development action. "The challenge is for us to keep going without losing."

Thus far, Barajas and the Fire has risen to the challenge, winning its past seven games while averaging nearly four goals per outing with five shutouts.

The Fire is coming off division triumphs over Vardar FC Freiburg, 6-0, and the Crew Soccer Academy Wolves, 2-1, this past weekend. The team's next match is an April 14 clash with undefeated division rival Sockers FC (5-0-3).

"There is a tremendous amount of trust of one another on this team," said coach Larry Sunderland. "It is honestly very difficult to point to any one or group of players that would be considered catalysts. The entire squad has an exceptional mentality."

Forward Joseph Calistri scored four goals against Vardar and had one against the Wolves, raising his team-leading total to seven.

Defensive midfielder Andrew Conner scored his fourth goal of the year against Vardar, and forward Kellen Gulley netted his fourth of the season against the Wolves. Defensive midfielder Emmanuel Chavez also had one of the goals against Vardar.

On the season, midfielder Victor Pineda has four goals and Andrew Oliver has two, followed by one each from Barajas, Chavez, midfielders Elliott Borge and Dan Lojek, defenders Joel Salmeron and Anthony Torres and forward Franciso Sajuan.

"It's all about coordinating our center backs. It's easy when the entire team is organized. We get in the middle and we say, 'we've got to win this game,' and, 'keep going with the shutouts,'" Barajas said.

"Our team is not big. We're really small actually. We just move the ball really well. We're organized on the top and in the back. We don't play long balls very much, and we keep it simple, you know -- one-two touch. That's how we manage to score a lot of goals and still play good defense."

Salmeron, Torres, Cody Witkowski and Keaton Albert comprise the defense in front of keepers Christian Lomelli and Zak Allen.

"We are very fluid tactically. We continually change from a 4-5-1 into a 3-4-3 with an option to go with a 4-4-2 as we wear the opponent down," Sunderland said.

"This is a concept we have worked on for the past three years with the core of this group. Less about the formation and more about the style. We are possession-based, up-tempo, and ball-hunt incessantly. We have a blue collar, grinding mentality."