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Kindling the Fire: Inside Chicago’s talent factory

The Fire academy has produced several high-level players in recent years... and they don’t plan on stopping any time soon.

Chicago Fire FC

This week, the headline story in Chicago soccer has been the $15 million transfer of homegrown goalkeeper Gaga Slonina to Chelsea. Gaga came up through the academy and has been a huge success in the first team, emerging as one of the top goalkeeping talents in the world. He is far from the only academy graduate who has been shining over the past couple of months.

19-year-old Brian Gutiérrez has also solidified himself as an important piece for the Fire, fighting for the starting job every week. Mauricio Pineda has found a valuable role in the squad and has been a reliable option in two different positions. Meanwhile, north of the border, Pineda’s former academy team-mate Djordje Mihailovic has emerged as one of the top players in MLS with CF Montréal and has earned numerous USMNT call-ups. Younger talents like Sergio Oregel and Chris Brady are waiting for the opportunity to break out in MLS, with the latter coming off of a Golden Glove-worthy performance at the CONCACAF Under-20 Championship last month.

While Chicago does boast one of the richest talent pools in the country, the work done in the academy has been key to this production and success of the Fire organization. After the team containing the likes of Pineda and Mihailovic won a U-17 national title in 2015, longtime Paris Saint-Germain academy director Cédric Cattenoy was brought in to lead the academy as technical director. 17 Homegrowns have been signed to first-team deals since he took over, including all of the players mentioned above.

“When you want to assess an academy, it’s the number of players you produce,” Cattenoy told Hot Time in Old Town in an exclusive interview this week. “We produce players, but talented players who are able to play at a high level, and I think that is a very good sign.”

Cédric Cattenoy (right) at the signing of homegrown forward Missael Rodríguez.

While the turnover to the first team has been good, the Fire has also produced winning teams at the youth level. Just last year, in 2021, the Fire U-19s won the national championship in the MLS Next playoffs. So what is the secret to all of this recent success?

“For me, what is very important is the stability in your staff,” says Cattenoy. “If you change staff every year, it’s not great. Over the past six years, we have had that stability, and that has been a key to success. When I started in 2016, we had only seven full-time staff. Today, we have 26 staff members, so it is a huge improvement. We are lucky because the club believes in the academy, and our owner [Joe Mansueto] believes in the youth, and that is amazing.”

Cattenoy was hired by then-Fire President Nelson Rodriguez. The Frenchman’s first months in the United States involved lots of observation to develop a new model for the academy whilst building on what was already in place. The head coach at that time, Veljko Paunović, was joining the Fire off the back of immense success at the youth international level with Serbia, and aimed to instill a youth movement in the first team. Rodriguez also aimed to tap into the young talent, and the academy became a much more important part of the club. During this era, homegrown players like Mihailovic and Slonina were signed to first-team deals, and the former emerged as an integral part of the first team in his debut season.

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at Chicago Fire
Mauricio Pineda won Fire Defender of the Year in his first season in 2020.
Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

In 2020, most of the first team staff was replaced; Georg Heitz came in as general manager, Raphaël Wicky was appointed as head coach, and he would be replaced by Ezra Hendrickson in 2022. The youth integration, which started under Rodriguez and Paunović, has continued under the newer regimes, and Cattenoy has been an important part of the staff throughout his six years despite the changing staff at the top.

“I had a lot of freedom with Nelson to implement a curriculum, and all of the coaches were very nice,” says Cattenoy. “Pauno was very nice, very accessible, and it was the same with Rafa and with Ezra. What I like with our head coaches, Pauno, Rafa, and Ezra, is that if there is a good player, whatever their age, they will put him on the field. They are not afraid, and I like that, because I can tell you in every club it is not like that, and we have a real bridge between the academy and the first team.”

The academy has been a huge beneficiary of the ownership of Joe Mansueto, who purchased the Fire in September of 2019. Cattenoy says that they have received the necessary backing they need to help further grow the development system. This summer, Mansueto provided the academy with a unique opportunity when he purchased Swiss Super League club FC Lugano. The Fire's U-17 team departed for Switzerland on July 31st, and they will prepare for the upcoming MLS Next season by competing against some of the region's best teams. Over the course of a two-week tour, the Fire will face FC Lugano, Grasshopper Zürich, FC Luzern, and French club Racing Strasbourg.

"We are really excited as a staff," says Cattenoy of the Switzerland trip. "When you meet other staff, you can speak about methodology and development... each country has its own approach. For the players on the field, they are going to play against another style of football, and they can build some relationships. Now, with social media, you can exchange your number, and now you are in touch. I would say on the field it will be very good, and it is a cultural project as well."

Chicago Fire FC

Aside from the matches, the academy players will have the opportunity to visit some sites in Switzerland and France and experience the culture there. This kind of tour is relatively unique amongst MLS academies and will help grow the individuals on and off the field and prepare the group for the upcoming season.

Apart from organizing events like the Europe trip, the academy staff has been working hard to further evolve the Fire to become a leader amongst U.S. academies. Looking around MLS, the league's development system has come a long way in the last few years, and the picture is constantly changing. Between international partnerships and pioneering education techniques, American clubs have been pushing the envelope to the extent that many can compete with top European and South American academies when they face off. Cattenoy hopes to take some of the aspects from his time at PSG and apply them to create an even better growth environment for the Fire's youth. What main things can help take the Fire academy to the next level?

"We need to have more time with the players," Cattenoy says. "Right now, the players come for the training session, so we have the players two hours per day. If you compare with Paris Saint-Germain, for example, when the players are 14, 13 years old, you have the players the entire day. It is a huge difference. Right now, when you train in the afternoon from 5 to 7, after the players have the go back home, they have to drive. Some guys, they need an hour or two to get back home. After they have to shower, have their dinner, they have to do their homework... so that's why we will have a U-17 school online program."

Chicago Fire FC

"We want to have the players the entire day. We are going to train more, and put in place an Individual Development Plan (IDP) for each player. Two sessions will be based on IDP. We will have a one-on-one meeting with video to give feedback to the players. This will be a high-level program, and that's the direction we want to go."

There is no shortage of talented players coming up through the Fire system, and several academy players are already getting call-ups to youth national teams. The organization aims to continue building on the infrastructure already in place and establish itself on the global stage as a nurturer of talent. Of course, there is still lots of work to do to compete domestically and internationally every year, but it seems that some European inspiration has put the Fire on the right track.

Chicago Fire FC