As the summer approaches, most 18-year-olds would be focused on graduating high school, prom, and getting ready for college. Most of them aren’t lining up at Soldier Field alongside a two-time European champion, nor are they aiming to qualify their country for the Olympics in a few weeks’ time, but that’s exactly what Brian Gutiérrez is doing. The teenage attacking midfielder is in his third season as a professional with the Chicago Fire, and in 2022 he is establishing himself as one of the top young players in MLS.
“I feel like I’ve grown a lot over the past three seasons,” Gutiérrez told Hot Time in Old Town in an interview in Bridgeview last week. “I’ve been getting lots of playing time, which helps me to learn.”
Gutiérrez, or “Guti” as he is known to his teammates, staff, and fans, has started six games for the Fire this season and played in all but one of the team’s opening 14 matches. Guti is also the team’s joint leader in primary assists, with two. However, he has his eyes on being more clinical in front of goal.
“The main goal is scoring,” Guti said with a smile. “Getting that first goal is important for me. I also want to be consistent every game, put up numbers for my team, and help my team win. We want to make the playoffs.”
Right now, about one-third of the way through the season, the Fire sit in 14th place in the Eastern Conference but are just five points below the playoff line. In addition to the homegrown Gutiérrez, numerous attacking arrivals will also play a significant role in helping the team reach its goal of reaching the postseason for the first time since 2017. One such signing is Xherdan Shaqiri; Guti was only six years old when the Swiss superstar played in his first World Cup in South Africa, but now they are teammates in Chicago.
“It’s crazy…” Guti says of the opportunity to play alongside Shaqiri. “I wouldn’t have expected it! But it’s a dream come true. He’s a good guy, a good professional, and I have learned a lot from him.”
Shaqiri has been deployed exclusively as a #10 since joining the Fire, while Gutiérrez has played chiefly out wide in a 4-2-3-1. However, when asked what his favorite position is, the 18-year-old expressed that he prefers a central role; he played mainly as a midfielder throughout his years in the academy and hardly got any experience on the wing before breaking into the first team.
Gutiérrez signed his first pro deal at the start of the 2020 season, aged just 16. He had to make sacrifices to reach that level, which involved giving up many aspects of his teenage years. For Guti, though, it was worth the cost to reach Major League Soccer at such an early age.
“It was not a normal 16-year-old’s life,” said Guti, looking back at his first years as a pro. “I missed school a lot, I didn’t get to go to homecoming, prom, any of that. But [playing soccer] is what I wanted to do my whole life, so I kept going. Now, this is a dream come true.”
While in the academy, though, he did get the chance to attend homecoming once, his freshman year, but it was not easy. His team had a morning road game in Columbus, Ohio against the Crew on the same day as the dance, but Guti remained determined to get back in time.
“I told my dad that I wanted to go because it was my first time. He went down to Columbus, and we played the game. I think we tied. Right away after the game, the coach talked to us, and when we were done, we had to rush to get there on time.” Guti and his father made the six-hour trip from Columbus to Berwyn, Illinois, and arrived just in time.
While Gutiérrez is just one of several homegrown players signed over the past few seasons, he is regarded as one of the best. His long-time teammate and fellow homegrown, goalkeeper Chris Brady, said that Guti has “potential like I have never seen before.” Chris Mueller, another local Chicago product who just arrived at the Fire from overseas, said of Guti that “there is not really a cap on what he can do.” His raw talent and work in training are reflected in his performances on the field, and many are starting to take notice.
Naturally, his play has caught the eye of U.S. Soccer. After being previously involved with the U-16s, Guti received his first call up to the Under-20 Men’s National Team last November. That U-20 team, which can call upon players born in 2003 and later, kicked off its cycle last fall and will culminate in the 2023 U-20 World Cup. In addition, that team is tasked with qualifying the United States for the Paris Olympics in 2024.
“We’re just trying to make it to the Olympics. We haven’t made the Olympics [since 2008], so that’s a big goal.”
To make the final 20-man squad for the Concacaf Qualifying tournament in June/July, Gutiérrez will be competing with some high-level prospects, many of whom he came up with in the Development Academy and youth national teams; Caden Clark, Paxten Aaronson, Quinn Sullivan, Kevin Paredes, and Dante Sealy are some such players. As someone who has been with the 2003 group since the beginning of the process for Mikey Varas’ team, Guti is committed to helping his country get back to the Olympics and fighting for a spot with Team USA.
“If I get the call-up, it’s an honor,” said Gutiérrez. “Being with your national team is something any player would want. It’s a really great group of guys and a great coaching staff. We’ve made a lot of progress [since November]; we have a really good idea of Mikey’s playing style, and what he wants from us, and we’ve set a good, high standard for the team.”
One thing that jumps out about Gutiérrez is the smile that is always on his face, whether it be during the interview or on the field. He is an 18-year-old boy living the dream, playing for his hometown team and his country, which shows in the energy he brings to each and every game. Guti will be an essential part of the Fire’s success this season, and it will be a joy to watch another local star shine under the lights on the lakefront.