As the sun sets over Bridgeview, a small but familiar crowd watches with anticipation as Chicago Fire II lines up for a corner kick. 17-year-old midfielder Sergio Oregel Jr. places the ball on the arc and tees up his options as his teammates jockey for positions around the six-yard box. The cross comes in and is dropped on a dime for fellow Fire homegrown Victor Bezerra, who heads the ball past the goalkeeper to open the scoring. While he is so often the youngest player on the field, Oregel has always made his presence known for Fire II, and since signing a first-team deal last fall, he has emerged as one of the top prospects at the club.
Being the youngest player out there is nothing new for Sergio, though. Playing three years up with the Chicago Fire U-19s last summer, he led the team to a national championship and claimed the Golden Ball award at the MLS Next Playoffs. That season put Oregel on the map, and he caught the attention of the first team.
“It was amazing,” Oregel told Hot Time in Old Town in an interview last week. “We had a very talented squad, and we were the youngest team there. It was like a family; we had ups and downs together throughout the year, but during the playoffs, we really stuck through it and came out as champions. I think it was deserved.”
After dominating the U-19 competition just a few weeks after his 16th birthday, Oregel was naturally handed a homegrown contract by the Chicago Fire. Just three years after entering the Fire system, he was already a professional.
“It has been my dream to go pro since I was little,” says Oregel. “I’ve always had a passion for soccer, and being able to play for my hometown team is incredible... I can remember we would come here [to Bridgeview] as a team and watch the games, and I’ve always loved the Fire. There’s no other place I’d rather be than here. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted.”
His first season with the Fire has been an interesting one. In January, Sergio joined up with the team for pre-season and immediately left a very positive impression. Then, the club announced the signing of Xherdan Shaqiri.
“He’s a phenomenal player,” Oregel says of the Swiss superstar. For reference, Sergio had just turned 8 years old when Shaqiri lifted the Champions League trophy with Bayern Munich. Now they are teammates with the Fire.
“I’ve gained a lot from him. He’s competitive, he always wants to win, and he always wants to be the best on the field. Wanting always to match his intensity has helped me improve, and he’s someone I look up to.”
As winter turned to spring, competitive games arrived on the calendar. While Oregel has only made the bench for the first team in MLS twice this season, he has been getting regular minutes for Chicago Fire II in MLS Next Pro. Oregel leads Fire II in assists and has been one of the best midfielders across the league in its inaugural season.
“It’s so important to get minutes,” says Oregel. “Since I’m still young, I need to develop, but it's a good level. There are many older players, stronger, so it pushes me to be able to compete against them. We’ve had some ups and downs, but we’re a young team, and we’ll keep improving.”
An attacking number ten in his academy days, Sergio has played a number of different positions for the second team this year. Often he is in a double pivot, similar to the shape preferred by Ezra Hendrickson and the first team. At times, though, he has been played as a lone six, tasked with both defensive responsibilities and with starting the attack.
“My preferred position would be the ten; I like to be in those pockets, breaking lines and assisting my teammates. But for the second team, I’ve played a lot as a six, helping play out of pressure and building out of the back. We’re a high-pressing team, and I think it suits me better in that system to defend as a six. Long term, I’d hope to be playing as a ten, that’s my favorite position, but if it doesn’t end up that way, that’s fine.”
Oregel’s best attributes are his vision and playmaking. It should come as no surprise then that he compares his style to Thiago Alcântara and Luka Modrić. There are definitely some similarities in his game to those superstars who have found success at the highest level.
Thanks to his performances in MLS Next Pro, Oregel has caught the eye of the national team, and U.S. U-19 head coach Marko Mitrović has called the Evergreen Park native into numerous camps this year. He has seized those opportunities and even scored for the U-19s against Norway in a 3-0 win this summer. That same team also defeated England during the same camp.
“It’s an honor to represent the United States,” says Oregel. “It’s something I’ve dreamed of since I was a little kid. It’s a great group and the coaching staff is amazing. They make it feel like a family.”
In addition to Mitrović, a former Chicago Fire assistant coach under Veljko Paunović, that staff contains legendary USMNT midfielder Jermaine Jones. Oregel can recall listening on the radio when Jones scored that famous goal against Portugal at the 2014 World Cup. Eight years on, Jones is his coach.
“[Jones] is an amazing coach,” says Oregel. “He’s a really chill guy; he wants what’s best for the team, he always talks to me, and he pushes me in a good way. He has so much to provide to the team... he played in a World Cup, he’s played in the Champions League, and having someone like that in the staff is great.”
Oregel has only represented the United States at the international level, but as a Mexican-American, he holds dual nationality and is eligible for both national teams. When the two teams play each other, Sergio sees it as an opportunity to learn from the players on the field, citing Yunus Musah as a player he enjoys watching. The possibility of playing in those high-intensity “clásicos” also provides something to aspire to.
As for all dual-national prospects, a decision will have to eventually be made. As he is still only 17, Oregel may not have to make that choice for a few years, but it is still something worth mentioning.
“Of course it’s been on my mind... I have great love for both countries, but USA has always had my heart.”
Now, the focus turns back to the Fire, and as the end of the 2022 season approaches, Sergio inches towards his MLS debut. There is a lot of work to do, but this young talent seems destined to be a big part of the future for both club and country.