The new year opened a new chapter for the Chicago Fire Academy as Gary Lewis was announced as Technical Director in January of 2023.
Lewis’ role involves overseeing the four current teams within the Chicago Fire Football Academy, the return of a U-19 team, and working with the organization’s MLS NEXT Pro side - Chicago Fire FC II - to help develop a smooth transition from the academy to a professional level.
Born in Liverpool, England, Lewis attended Liverpool F.C. games at an early age and became an avid fan of the club and the sport. He always wanted to coach, but instead started a career in finance working as a business manager. He ultimately decided to leave financing and set up his own business coaching kindergarten through sixth grade. He attained his UEFA B and A license, leading to him coaching a U-7 group. That eventually led to coaching Everton’s academy and becoming head of youth development at Liverpool. Over the course of his career, Lewis ended up coaching the likes of Ryan Kent, who plays at Glasgow Rangers FC in Scotland, Ross Barkley from Everton, and Trent Alexander-Arnold from Liverpool.
In England, Lewis worked with Rodolfo Borrell (Assistant Coach at Manchester City), Steve Cooper (Head Coach at Nottingham Forest), and Pep Segura (Head of Academy at Barcelona), who all heavily influenced him on his coaching path.
After leaving England for the United States and becoming National Director of Football Club USA, he worked with the Philadelphia Union Academy, helping players make it to the first team. Growing his experience in the MLS, he then became Seattle Sounders Academy Director.
Lewis decided to come to the Chicago Fire after interviewing with several members of the Fire Sporting staff, including Sporting Director Georg Heitz.
“I just connected immediately,” Lewis said. “I felt the warmth and felt the culture immediately through a Zoom call. I thought, ‘wow, this is the place where I want to be.’”
After spending several months creating a plan for the academy, Lewis presented it to the Chicago Fire staff and was hired as Technical Director.
“I’ve learned over the years that it's all about relationships, how you connect with people,” Lewis said. “You forget the tactics. It's the connection, the players want to play for you. You still have to know the game. Obviously, you need to be a high level coach, but the connections are everything.”
The connections really are everything for Lewis, working in a player development industry where clubs are judged on how many players make it through the academy system and become professional players. Being a part of the process means the most to Lewis.
“When a player is standing next to our head coach at Soldier Field about to make his debut on the field in MLS, that’s when I get emotional,” he said.
The feeling of seeing former player Trent Alexander-Arnold winning the UEFA Champions League, and additionally seeing Obed Vargas winning the CONCACAF Champions League with Seattle Sounders - knowing he made an impact in their careers is the biggest achievement so far for Lewis in his career.
Lewis has seen growth and change within the development of youth players and the brand of soccer throughout the United States.
“When I first came, my opinion of American soccer was all physical. Americans are athletic but I thought in terms of the game their understanding would be quite low. And I got a shock when I came over here. The level of the game was pretty much the same as in England. The only difference I found was that the players wanted to go through the college route. They wanted to go through the MLS draft which excited them. The change now is the connected pathway from the academy through the first team.”
MLS created MLS NEXT Pro as another pathway to develop players for MLS. The pathway to being a professional player is clearer now than ever before. The commitment to coaching and education roles is high and there is pressure to deliver at a high level.
“The way I see people's growth, that gives me goosebumps and tears in my eyes when I see people change. It's the unconscious incompetence where people don't know what they don't know. Then when they realize what the next level looks like, you see the light bulb go on. And that's so rewarding as an educator, and then just to see the growth and the passion,” he said.
Recently, Lewis sat down with Chicago Fire FC to dive deeper into his story and vision for the Chicago Fire Academy’s future:
ChicagoFireFC.com: How have you seen player development in the U.S. change during your time in the U.S., and where do you see it going from here?
Gary Lewis: “It’s massive how the change has been here. Even driving on the streets, you see soccer. Access to games doesn’t conflict with timing, boys see the players on the field and they know them. They emulate the player’s good and bad habits, like the celebrations players do. [The FIFA World Cup] 2026 will be a game changer. The talent is here. We want them on the Chicago Fire first team and to have a local flavor to our first team.”
CFFC.com: You have a solid track record of having players from your academies go on to play for the first team and even their national team at the youth and full-team level. Is there something that you emphasize or do differently that helps players develop?
GL: “Right now, we are looking at many high-potential players. We grade everything we do, we look at analysis, growth and maturation. Hydration and nutrition, technical as well as tactical. And game understanding these all link to the long term development of players careers. The educational piece is huge for me as well. I can’t sleep at night if we fail these boys. We have to make sure that we produce good people and good learners. They may never make it here as a pro, but we want ambassadors for the club. I want this to be the best experience of their life as young players. I want alumni to go away and speak highly of the Chicago Fire.”
CFFC.com: Chicago also has a strong track record of having Homegrown players sign with the Chicago Fire or Chicago Fire II. How do you see yourself continuing that tradition?
GL: “The priority is to want every player in Chicago to want to play for the Chicago Fire Football Club. I’m involved with connecting with the club, such as participating in events at the Fire Pitch and with local club leaders. I want this state to be the engine that powers our first team. There are two million 5 to 17-year-olds in Illinois and we only need the top 100. We need to respect the local clubs and the work they are putting in, at least, we can all share the joy in having an impact getting these players to Soldier Field.”
CFFC.com: What is the most exciting part of this project at the Chicago Fire Academy? What drew you to the Fire?
GL: “The leadership at Chicago Fire and the soccer culture drew me here. Before Frank Klopas and his goals. It’s a soccer city. It’s unbelievable, from the ownership to the staff, how they made me feel and it’s more about the culture and environment that suits me. How could you not want to work here? I will strive to make us the best in the country.”
CFFC.com: What has the Academy Director role been like for you so far in Chicago?
GL: “Seeking to understand perception versus reality. The first thing I looked at was the perception of the Academy inside and outside the club, as well as through player and parent lenses. I walk around every night and say hello to people and I don't believe we should keep parents at arm's length. They’ve got the elite athletes in their house, so how can we support that? What's working and not? I’ve been watching everything, helping and supporting. My priority is getting out and about listening and how I can build bridges. I haven’t been in the academy long, I’ve only been here eight weeks. There is a lot to do.”
CFFC.com: What are your goals for the Academy?
“Connecting all the dots, really, for the club leaders locally. Do we even know who the best players are in Chicago? I don't think we do. How do we do that? How do we find out? The four things that I came on my agenda is to develop the Club and improve talent development and talent identification. Leadership and staff development is also a high priority. So how do we develop that? How do we support local clubs and build relationships? How do we get representatives of our Club to look at players? Then, leading the talent development plan. What does that look like? Looking at the future game, where’s the trend going? In terms of the game model, it should never be done, it should never be finished and it should always be changed and adapted. And then staff development, what's their North star? Our staff. How do I get them there? Because they are all ambitious. I want to understand where they're trying to get to and how can I support that?”
CFFC.com: What do you want to accomplish with the Chicago Fire Academy?
GL: “We want to get as many players into the system that can help our first team win. That's really important. So can we contribute to significant minutes in our first team, they're going to help the team win. So then the next priority is return on investment. Can we sell a player so obviously, with John Duran and Gaga going directly into the Premier League, that’s helped us massively. If players go to college we would want to come back. Ultimately we want to give our players a foundation to succeed in life.”