When the United States last competed in men’s soccer at the Olympics, Chris Brady was just 4 years old. Thanks to the resounding performances of Brady and the U-20 National Team over the past few weeks, though, that maddening streak will finally come to an end. With a dominant, historic 3-0 win over Honduras last Friday, Team USA booked its ticket to Paris 2024, becoming the first American team to do so in any sport.
Chris Brady, a Naperville native, has started all but one of the U.S.’s games on their run to double-qualification for the Olympics and U-20 World Cup. For years, Brady has had the unique challenge of competing with another top goalkeeper prospect, in the same age group, on the same team: Gaga Slonina. That has often prevented him from attending U.S. Soccer camps, as the Chicago Fire didn’t want to release both goalkeepers simultaneously. For the first time in his youth national team career, though, Brady has had the opportunity to step into the spotlight at a major tournament.
“It’s been a great experience,” Brady says of the U-20 qualifying event in Honduras. “When I get released, I try to make an imprint and get my name out there and play to the best of my ability. I feel like myself, as well as this whole squad down in Honduras, have done a very good job of that. Overall, this whole experience has been a blast, and there’s more to come.”
Throughout the qualifiers, the American team has been efficient offensively and solid at the back. With Brady between the sticks, the U.S. has posted four straight shutouts. They coasted through the early rounds, cruising past Cuba and Nicaragua, before coming up against their sternest opposition of the tournament in Costa Rica. Between the three games leading up to that match, Brady only had to make four saves, but against Los Ticos, he found himself significantly busier.
“A way to stay tuned in to the game is communication. No matter what we’re facing, if it’s no shots or ten shots, I’m making sure that I’m talking to my backline, and it helps me stay in the game. So, when we do face a team like Costa Rica or Honduras where we’re going to be tested, I’m always ready.”
Early in the second half of the quarterfinal against Costa Rica, the U.S. found themselves up by two goals thanks to a brace from Paxten Aaronson. However, the game’s decisive moment – and the tournament’s decisive moment for Chris Brady – would come in the 55th minute when a Costa Rican cross struck Mauricio Cuevas’ arm and the referee pointed to the spot. Brandon Aguilera, the Costa Rican captain and one of CONCACAF’s brightest young stars, stepped up to the spot.
“I try before every PK to do a little something to distract or throw off the shooter, whether it’s minute or as big as me talking to him. In that moment, I remember the ref blowing the whistle for a PK, I remember thinking, ‘OK, I understand it’s a handball so there’s no real argument there.’ We had done our homework the night before on [Aguilera] as a PK shooter, and we felt like he would go to the side I’d go, which I did; in turn, he went the other way, but he missed thankfully! I remember this electric feeling that overtook me after he missed. Every player on the field felt that.”
Following the win over Costa Rica, which secured a spot in the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Indonesia, the U.S. took on the host Honduras with a berth in the Olympics on the line. In a dominant, thumping performance rarely seen by American teams on the road in Central America, the U.S. ran out 3-0 victors, with first half goals from Paxten Aaronson, Alex Alvarado, and Quinn Sullivan propelling them to qualification. Honduras made a push to come back into the game in the second half, but could barely challenge Brady, and on the two occasions that they managed to get the ball on target, the goalkeeper easily made the saves. At the final whistle, the celebrations were a mix of joy and relief; though the semifinal wasn’t exactly a battle, in qualifying for the Olympics the young U-20 group had overcome a hurdle that U.S. soccer teams had failed to pass for the last three cycles.
With the U-20 World Cup a year away, there is still plenty of time for Brady to further solidify his claim for a spot on the 21-man squad. His longtime teammate, the aforementioned Gaga Slonina, has established himself as the starter for the Fire, while Brady has been getting consistent minutes for Chicago Fire II in MLS Next Pro. With that being said, the latter has his eyes on breaking through with the first team and has embraced the competition with his friend and teammate.
“The competition is great. It’s pushed us to feed off of each other... when he does well I want to do better than him and vice versa. I’m happy that he’s secured that starting job, but now more than ever it's pushed me to fight for that spot as well. It’s spurred an even greater amount of competition between the two of us.”
The case of Slonina and Brady is something totally unique as well. What are the odds that two of the highest-rated goalkeeping prospects not only in the United States but in the world would have been born just a few weeks and merely 15 miles apart, with both coming up through the Chicago Fire system at the same time?
“I don’t think you’re ever going to find that ever again,” says Brady. “It’s insanely unique. Because I’m one of them, it’s kind of hard to believe, but I’m sure for people looking in from the outside, it’s even crazier... it’s cool to sit back and realize that this is not happening anywhere else in the world, and probably never will again. It’s crazy to think about.”
Despite having already qualified for the World Cup and Olympics, when Brady returns to Chicago next week he will be hoping to bring back one more thing – a winner’s medal. The U.S. will face the Dominican Republic in the final and will seek to secure the three-peat having won the last two editions of the CONCACAF U-20 Championship in 2017 and 2018. The D.R. has embarked on a Cinderella run to the final, emerging from the side of the bracket containing teams such as Mexico, Canada, Jamaica, El Salvador, and Guatemala. They will be riding the high of qualifying for their first Olympic soccer tournament in history.
“Coach Mikey [Varas] says it a lot, but CONCACAF’s never a guarantee. You never know what’s going to happen. We’re expecting it’s going to be a good game, it’s going to be a battle. Every game in CONCACAF is.”
If the United States can get the job done against the Dominican Republic, Chris Brady will claim his first official winner’s medal. The past three weeks down in Honduras have been immensely successful for Brady and the U-20s, and one final victory in San Pedro Sula would represent the cherry on top. There is plenty of work to be done both at home with the Chicago Fire and on the global stage with Team USA — breaking into the Fire lineup certainly won’t be easy, while competing to be U-20 world champions and Olympic gold medalists will be even more challenging — but there are few 18-year-old goalkeepers with the talent and drive of Chris Brady, and making a huge impact for club and country is just the next step in his journey.