Recently on SoccerCast Chicago, I spoke with Chicago Fire legend C.J. Brown about his new job as head coach and technical director of the soon-to-be-named NISA Chicago. We talked about his coaching journey, soccer philosophy and Chicago legacy.
On being hired to coach NISA Chicago
Brown began working as an assistant coach in MLS soon after his retirement in 2010, joining Jason Kreis’ staff at Real Salt Lake. In between his various stops, former Fire general manager and perennial soccer-team-starter Peter Wilt would always reach out about potential coaching opportunities. However, until now, Brown didn’t feel like the time was right.
“I thought it was a little early for me,” Brown said. “I was in MLS and I really wanted to learn under the coaches I worked for and really grasp what it took to be a coach, and [there was] nothing better than being at the highest level possible in the U.S. So I told him I wasn’t quite ready to make that jump yet.”
Brown most recently worked as an assistant to former Fire teammate Chris Armas with the New York Red Bulls, but Armas was fired in September. It was at that point that Wilt decided it was worth giving C.J. Brown another call.
“I’d already made my mind up when [I] got released from Red Bull that I was moving back to Chicago,” Brown said. “And to know that [Peter] wanted to start a soccer team, even if [he] didn’t have it started yet I want to be a part of it.”
On how his variety of jobs helped develop his coaching philosophy
Including beginning his coaching career with Kreis in Salt Lake, Brown also served as his assistant in New York with NYCFC and with Orlando City in addition to a brief stint with the Fire in between and most recently with the Red Bulls.
With Kreis, things were all about structure and possession. But this grew frustrating as the focus often felt like it was on winning every game 1 – 0. The most valuable part for Brown of working with Kreis likely came during their time with NYCFC, where Kreis was the team’s first head coach.
“We were able, with NYCFC, to build a program from scratch,” Brown recalls. “They had nothing. So we had to try to build a culture, we had to get players, we had to do it all within about 2 years… It was fun, it was hard work… but you get to see the whole process from ground zero, which is kind of what we’re doing now.”
Brown is looking forward to the similar challenge he faces in Chicago, as well as finding a happy medium between Kreis’ more pragmatic football and the unleashed aggression and constant pressing of the Red Bull system.
“I don’t have the solution, I don’t have the big answer,” Brown laughed. “But I think I do have a style that can incorporate both of them. I’m excited to see how it works. It is challenging, because we are a third-division league so I’m trying to look for aggressive players but also skillful players and trying to find that mold was even difficult in the first division because you look at a whole different price range when you start to say ‘ok I want this really aggressive player who’s really good on the ball.’ Well, most of those are playing in Europe. So now I’m trying to figure out how to manage that in the third-division and basically find kids that have the skillset or kids that are very physical that we have to teach the skillset… It’ll be a great project, it’ll be fun, I think it’ll be a lot of work, but I think it’ll be exciting to see what we put together.”
The excitement of being back in Chicago
Brown was born in Oregon and grew up in California. At age 22, joining the Fire was the first time he lived away from his family. Even while he has moved around MLS, Chicago has continued to feel like home for his family, particularly his children who were born in Chicago during his time with the Fire.
“This is a great place for me,” Brown said of Chicago. “I love the culture, I love the city itself. I think the City is an awesome place to be. From music, to food, to different ethnicities that you can grow and learn around… and it’s a beautiful city, especially in the summer. Yeah, the winter’s a little tough for people but I manage it well. I’m trying to get used to it again now that I’m back.”
He said he never felt the same connection to the other cities he’s lived in, and he hoped to one day have the passion that he saw in Kreis and Armas but knew the only place he could be was Chicago.
Recruiting players to play through the winter
NISA has committed to playing the traditional August – May schedule, which means running the risk of negative temperatures and significant amounts of snow…. While it’s easy to joke about, Brown said it is something to consider and translates to the type of mentality he’s looking for in a player.
“It’s more difficult for me because I will have to determine whether I think that player is strong enough mentally to handle this type of weather,” Brown said. “There’s players that will never tell you that they don’t want to play in cold weather because they want to play, the want a job, they love to play. Until they actually feel what Chicago has for you when it’s this cold, it’s a different mentality.”
He also noted that having to play mostly on turf fields will be another reason players will need a strong mentality to deal with adverse conditions.
Coaching at SeatGeek Stadium
Brown was a member of the first Fire teams to play at then Toyota Park, and the stadium continues to hold special significant for him despite not having played there in over a decade.
“Standing in the stadium, looking around, knowing that I’m gonna be the head coach of this team that we’re gonna put on the field is extremely exciting,” he said. “The biggest thought and biggest emotion I had is for the players. There’s gonna be so many Chicago kids on this team that have been to this stadium to watch games, and now they’ll have a chance to be on the field.”
Brown never had the chance to play in front of family and friends in Bridgeview, but looks forward to his players having that opportunity.
His Legacy with Fire Fans
Recently, the Fire asked fans which former players they most identify with the club. Brown’s was a frequent name mentioned, and such a legacy is all he could have ever wanted as a player.
“It was very humbling, I’m honored for that. It shows all the hard work you put into your craft,” he said. “I was not the best soccer player on the Chicago Fire, I know that, but the work that I put in on the field, the effort I put in during training. The naturalness of just meeting the supporters, that to me goes a long way. And I was lucky and fortune to be around some really good players on a really good team that won championships. When you win championships, people tend not to forget you as easily.”
He hopes to instill his work-rate and attitude into his future players, and is happy that fans still remember his attitude on and off the field.
Thoughts on Mauricio Pineda
Mauricio Pineda’s young career, in many ways, has thus-far mirrored the start of C.J. Brown’s time in Chicago. Brown has long been aware of Pineda’s potential, having occasionally coached him in 2014 while in charge of the Fire’s reserve team (which included Harry Shipp, Andrew Gutman, and Collin Fernandez) when Pineda was still only 16 years old.
“I don’t think he needs any advice. He’s got it, he’s got it figured out,” Brown said of Pineda. “My message to him, and this is to any young kid: stay hungry. You’ve had some success, is that all you want? Do you want more? Because there’s plenty of more out there for him.”
Brown hinted that the team’s name and identity is set to be announced soon. The league is currently set to begin play in August