Over the last decade, Chicago has slowly emerged as one of the leading academies in the United States. It has seen Gaga Slonina break into the Fire’s first team and be sold to global powerhouse Chelsea for $15 million. It has seen Djordje Mihailovic graduate from the academy and eventually develop into one of the best American players. It has produced numerous other valuable professionals and major contributors like Mauricio Pineda. But now, its products make up a significant portion of the Fire first team, and some key teenage homegrown players will make the 2023 season more fun to watch: Chris Brady, Brian Gutiérrez, and Sergio Oregel Jr.
Remember all of that excitement that we collectively had at the end of 2021 when Gaga Slonina broke into the eleven ahead of Bobby Shuttleworth and then won the starting job for the next season? Chris Brady deserves that same hype and recognition.
Brady himself must be sick by now of the Gaga comparisons. Over the last year-and-a-half, everything he’s done has been measured against his former teammate. To an extent, that is an inescapable reality. But that doesn’t do him justice. Brady is a truly special player who, at 18, has already accomplished far more than any other teenage goalkeeper in American soccer outside of Chicago. He is (more than likely) the starting goalkeeper for an MLS team, has a USL League One Young Player of the Year award, was by far the best goalkeeper in MLS Next Pro last season, and, to cap it all off, led the US U-20 National Team to qualification for the U-20 World Cup and Olympics whilst winning the Golden Glove at the CONCACAF Championship.
No other goalkeeper in MLS under the age of 22 comes particularly close to matching that resumé. Those who doubt his ability to come into an MLS lineup and be the #1 should also have doubted Gaga because Brady’s experience is much more proficient than Gaga’s was when he broke through. Not to mention, he’s arguably just as good and more talented. Brady has a shot-stopping ability that is unrivaled anywhere in the American youth pool, and he displayed that natural ability in MLS Next Pro last season. With Brady between the sticks last season, the Fire conceded 0.83 goals per game on average, compared to without him, they shipped 3.09 per game. In advanced statistics categories, he was dominant even when compared to the rest of the goalkeepers in the league.
Brady is not a perfect goalkeeper. While his shot-stopping ability is superb, his time with the U-20s and Fire II showed that he has a lot of work to do with the ball at his feet and his distribution. Those are areas that can be improved and will come with time. Brady also enters week one with only 90 minutes of MLS experience. It is a significantly higher level of competition than anything he faced in MLS Next Pro or CONCACAF, and the sudden jump up in level could produce a learning curve. That is natural for a young goalkeeper, and fans must remember not to write him off if he makes a mistake or two early in the year. If given time, Brady will show his quality, and he is more than talented enough to write his own individual legacy that isn’t being the “other” Chicago goalkeeper.
When comparing prospects, goalkeepers usually fall into their own category; it’s unfair to rank keepers against outfield players. With that being said to set Chris Brady aside, the most talented player in the Fire system is Brian Gutiérrez.
From a young age, it was clear that Guti had phenomenal talent. He began to make an impact both for the Fire Academy and for the youth national teams. In 2020, at 16, he was rewarded with a promotion to the first team, signing a homegrown contract, and he debuted later that season. It wasn’t until 2022, though, that he truly got his chance. Gutiérrez appeared in 34/35 competitive matches last season, only missing one through suspension, and he steadily improved throughout the year.
When watching his game, it’s clear that Guti is closer to unlocking his potential than most might think. Simply put, he can do things that just about nobody else in American soccer can do. Take his assist against Toronto FC last July, for example. A quick aerial pass appeared that it would land at too awkward a height for him to receive at midfield. However, instead, he seamlessly backheeled the ball mid-flight, and it landed at the feet of Jhon Durán, who did the rest and scored.
Against FC Cincinnati, towards the end of the season, he produced his best performance of the season (and of his career) as he scored once and added two assists. His first assist saw him take down the ball in the air and play a perfect through pass for Durán. The second was a perfectly weighted ball over the top that was placed exactly where Durán needed it to score his second. Guti’s two assists sandwiched his goal, on which he displayed calmness under pressure and slotted the ball past Roman Celentano. Cincy were battling for a playoff spot in this game, but Guti simply took over and was the best player on the field.
The biggest question for him this season is, can he put in performances like that every week? Setting aside the Cincy matchup, Guti only showed his quality in flashes – brief moments scattered throughout the season – but couldn’t take over many games all by himself. In the Fall, he found confidence and a good rhythm. If he can find that same rhythm, suddenly the Fire have a very dangerous player on their hands… and one of the best players in MLS.
Unlike Brady and Gutiérrez, Sergio Oregel probably won’t be a key player in 2023. He’s still only 17 and has just 11 minutes of MLS experience. But if Guti is the most talented outfield player of the Fire’s crop of homegrowns, Oregel is #2.
No young Fire player has gone under the radar more than Oregel. Signed ahead of the 2022 season after remarkably winning the Golden Ball at MLS Next Cup whilst playing up three years, Sergio spent most of last year with the second team. He was typically the youngest player on the field for the majority of the season, but more often than not looked like the most technically sound. Playing either as a 6 or as an 8, Oregel showed significant improvement over the course of the season and earned a senior debut on the final day of the season.
Don’t expect Oregel to regularly break into the starting lineup this season; that would be setting an unrealistic expectation for a young player, though it would be a pleasant surprise. While he was tremendous at the core of the Fire II midfield, the physical jump from MLS Next Pro to MLS is massive, and he probably isn’t ready yet from a physical standpoint. However, with midfield depth scarce, Sergio finds himself entering the season as the fourth-choice central midfielder competing for one of the two spots in the double pivot. With Gastón Giménez likely dealing with some injury troubles at the start of the season, though, the 17-year-old will surely get opportunities.
Even if he isn’t at a stage in his development yet that he can be depended upon to play a regular role, there are aspects of his game that could be very useful for Ezra Hendrickson this season. As mentioned previously, he was the most technical player for Fire II, and his passing was superb last season. Midfielders are given much more time and space in MLS Next Pro, it must be said, but his vision and range can still translate to first-team soccer. Sergio’s corner kicks and set-piece abilities are also incredibly helpful attributes; a case could be made that his corner kick delivery is better than anyone else at the club.
The expectations for this season must be carefully set. It’s easy to forget how young he is, and at just 17, he still has lots of developing to do to reach his full potential. But this will be a big season for Sergio, and his breakthrough will add much-needed depth and competition to the Fire’s midfield.
Which Fire homegrowns are you most excited to see this season? Let us know in the comments!