The Chicago Fire’s preseason kicks off tomorrow, and the team’s roster for the 2023 season is taking shape. A pair of new defensive reinforcements were brought in this week, and while neither will be starters, they fill holes in the squad and provide depth. While two were brought in, Stanislav Ivanov left the club by mutual consent and is now a free agent. There were also some new developments surrounding the Fire’s academy, including unveiling a new Academy Director, Gary Lewis. All of these topics will be covered in today’s Fire notebook.
Signing #1: Jeff Gal
The Fire’s third new signing of the offseason is a goalkeeper, Jeff Gal, who is a returning Chicagoland native, though he never played in the Fire system previously. Gal, born in Barlett, played for Sockers FC before playing in college at Creighton and Virginia. He moved overseas in 2016 and bounced around a number of Swedish clubs, most recently playing for Degerfors.
Now 29, Gal is not someone who was clearly brought in to be the #1. It appears that the technical and coaching staff have faith in Chris Brady to be the starter this season, and handing the gloves to the exceptionally talented 18-year-old will be a decision that pays off big time. Gal is an experienced backup who will provide mentorship for Brady alongside Spencer Richey, who is also still under contract.
Signing #2: Jonathan Dean
The fourth signing of the offseason is one from a market that MLS clubs have not dipped into too much; USL. Dean was an all-league defender in the American second division for Birmingham Legion and one of the more highly rated fullbacks in the league. The 25-year-old was originally drafted by Orlando City in 2020 but was not signed and ended up playing three seasons in the lower leagues.
In contrast to Arnaud Souquet, the other right-back signing, who drops down a level from the French Ligue 1, Dean jumps up as he moves to MLS. It’s unlikely that he will be the starter at right back. However, he adds depth in a position that, one week ago, the Fire had zero players in. Dean could hopefully prove to be a hidden gem out of USL and challenge for a spot in the XI.
Stanislav Ivanov Departs
Yesterday, the Fire announced that Bulgarian winger Stanislav Ivanov had left the club by mutual consent. Though Ivanov arrived in Chicago with promise, his two seasons with the Fire were riddled with injuries, and he never made any sort of notable impact. Though the injuries were unfortunate, it's impossible not to add Ivanov to the growing list of failed Georg Heitz signings.
Ultimately, Ivanov earned just under $700,000 across two seasons (MLSPA) in addition to the estimated $300,000 transfer fee (Transfermarkt). In exchange for that million dollars, Ivanov provided one goal and one assist. This will go down as very underwhelming business, especially considering the expectations that came with his TAM-based acquisition.
Though things never worked out for him in Chicago, we wish Stani all the best with his next chapter, wherever that may be.
Gary Lewis named Academy Director
Shifting from the first team to the Academy, there has been change at the top. When Cédric Cattenoy was moved to the first team staff last fall, the Fire looked for a replacement and appointed Gary Lewis as his successor. Lewis is an exciting hire for this position, and he has experience working with some very talented groups of players. Prior to moving to the United States, he coached at Liverpool.
Lewis has found lots of success since jumping across the pond. He spent time at the Philadelphia Union, now held as the gold standard among MLS academies, and played a role in the development of numerous players now in Europe, such as Brenden Aaronson, Mark McKenzie, and Paxten Aaronson. He then moved to Seattle, where his time with the academy saw the ascent of young homegrown talents like Obed Vargas and Reed Baker-Whiting. The Sounders won the GA Cup in 2022 following the work he did with that academy.
Chicago talents earn recognition with USYNT
Lewis’ job will be made easier by the fact that talented players are coming out of Chicago more than ever before. The U.S. U-15 National Team, which is preparing for the CONCACAF U-15 Championship later this year, contains four Fire Academy products (though only two are still at the club). Christopher Cupps and Kruz Held are the two current Fire players who played in this camp. Gio Villa (Real Salt Lake) and Marius Aiyenero (Club Torcy) were the two former Fire players.
Notably, Cupps captained the U.S. in their exhibition match during the camp. The center-back appears to be emerging as a leader for that supremely talented 08 team, which contains a number of the country’s top prospects such as Cavan Sullivan, Luca Moisa, and DeCarlo Guerra. It would be a tremendous accomplishment if the Chicago native goes on to wear the armband at the CONCACAF Championship for a team that is heavily favored to win the title. Cupps is likely the Fire’s top academy prospect at the moment, and he is definitely one to keep an eye on.