When Javier Casas, Jr., Allan Rodriguez, Chris Brady, Alex Monis, and Brian Gutierrez all signed Homegrown contracts with the Chicago Fire first team last season, the five teenagers were making the biggest jump of their lives.
They were going from the Chicago Fire Academy, where they were surrounded by fellow high schoolers, to a cutthroat, results-driven professional environment, with grown men who certainly wouldn’t be happy about teenagers trying to take their jobs. On top of that, they were entering that environment during a global pandemic, where no one was quite certain what the future would hold. After a lifetime of playing soccer every week, when would their next game come?
It was enough pressure and uncertainty to break most teenagers. But, none of those five guys folded. Brady, Monis, and Rodriguez went off to USL League One side Forward Madison on loan, and Casas and Gutierrez stayed back in Chicago to battle for minutes with the veterans. Several times since their signings, Fire head coach Raphael Wicky has praised their mental strength.
“They’re doing well,” Wicky said of the Homegrowns in March. “They’re well integrated. They’re not new players here, they trained with us all last year. They know all the teammates. They’re integrated in the team. They feel well. For them as well, it’s year two with me, year two with this team and they’re doing well.”
For Brian Roberts, that’s not a surprise. He serves as director of the Fire Academy’s PASS program, which helps make players mentally stronger on the field, and better people away from it.
“It goes beyond the kind of traditional X’s and O’s of coaching and more towards what we refer to as a broad based, holistic approach to educate the players,” Roberts explains.
PASS stands for Performance, Advisory, and Support Service. While the coaches are busy making the 100 or so Academy players better from a technical and tactical standpoint, Roberts and his team help the players with ethical intelligence, emotional intelligence, mental performance, life skills, and academics.
Academy life is extremely time consuming. Players train five days a week, and in non-pandemic times, they’re out-of-town every other weekend. It makes juggling soccer, school, family and friends quite difficult. It’s certainly not a normal life for a teenager. Roberts understands that.
The Dublin, Ireland native joined the Fire full-time in 2007, and helped set up the now-massive Fire Juniors program, before jumping to the Academy five years ago to focus on players’ health, education, and welfare. He launched the PASS program as a holistic way to develop the players, and to champion the club’s “Duty of Care” program.
“What that means, basically, is our responsibilities as a football club when these Academy players are in our care,” he says. “They’re in our care at practices, they’re in our care on overnight trips and weekends. How can we support those players when they’re away from home?”
The goal of the Academy is to create professional soccer players that can help the first team. But even if the coaches do their absolute best work, most of the players won’t turn pro. That’s not meant to be a knock. It’s just reality. Only 20 Fire Academy players have ever signed Homegrown contracts with the club, and even fewer have made an impact. But, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t go on to become good people.
“Throughout their time with the academy, these players are on a dual pathway,” Roberts says. “A dual pathway means we’re developing them to be professionals, but we’re also developing them to be high quality student athletes. There’s a baseline expectation from a grade perspective or from a school perspective.”
Roberts says if a player is slipping in school, his team will step in right away, and will provide a tutor. If a player is suffering mentally, PASS is there, too. Players come from all different backgrounds, so support is tailored to their ages and individual needs. Roberts says of the players that don’t sign pro contracts, 98 percent go on to be student-athletes in college—a fact that rightfully makes him very proud. To make that happen, he works with Felix Yu, who specializes in mental performance, and Rachel Jankowsky, a social worker who heads up welfare and education.
PASS doesn’t end when the players join the first team, either. Going to a regular high school is impossible when you have to battle Robert Beric and Gaston Gimenez in training every morning, so the club set up the recent Homegrowns with an online academy called Laurel Springs to finish their high school diplomas. There’s even a designated homeroom at SeatGeek Stadium for the players finishing their diplomas. Roberts says for many of the Homegrowns’ parents, the fact the club let them focus on education was a key selling point.
“As the contract is in front of them, there are also support materials to say this is what the club is doing to support your child through a wide variety of areas, and education is one of them,” Roberts says. “And, to be honest with you, that was very important to some of the families.”
The education extends beyond a normal school education, too. PASS includes a mental skills and character development program. Last season, the club interviewed several leaders on the first team—guys like Jonathan Bornstein and Alvaro Medran—and sent those interviews to a company in Colorado, which turned the key points into lessons the Academy players could view on their phones every month.
“They hear some of their heroes on the first team talk about things like resilience, and focus and concentration. That’s a very powerful tool,” Roberts says.
Even if the players never go on to represent the Fire on the pitch as Homegrowns, they’ll still represent the Fire out in the real world. But if they do make it? There’s isn’t much better in soccer than seeing a local boy make it big with his hometown club. When that happens, Roberts wants his players to be mentally ready for the challenge.
“The vision was that our Academy players will become the soul of our club, and that’s where PASS was born and developed,” he says.