In the summer of 2007, the Chicago Fire found themselves in an exciting time in franchise history.
The “Men in Red” were coming off the heels of winning their sixth major title, after defeating the LA Galaxy, 3-0, to claim the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup for their fourth championship in nine years.
A dazzling team that was led by players like Andy Herron, Jesse Marsch, and of course, current assistant coaches Zach Thornton and C.J. Brown.
Just seven months after the championship run, the Fire went out and acquired Mexican legend Cuauhtémoc Blanco to bolster the roster in preparation for another run.
Behind the scenes in Bridgeview, the team was working on a development system that would bolster the team in a different way.
That system would eventually become the Chicago Fire Academy.
On July 3, 2007, the Chicago Fire Academy was born. The intention of the Academy was very clear - to develop and shape the future of the franchise in the heart of the Chicagoland area.
At the time of its inception, the Academy only had two teams – competing in the U-16 and U-18 divisions. Additionally, the two teams were part of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy – a league that had been created by the U.S. Soccer Federation and at the time had only been established for months.
Since then, the Chicago Fire Academy has grown exponentially – with the Club now boasting five teams participating in the U-13, U-14, U-15, U-17, and U-19 divisions of MLS NEXT – the academy league of Major League Soccer.
On top of that, the Fire Academy also boasts 24 alumni who have since been promoted from the academy to first team contracts.
Since the inception of the Homegrown Rule in 2008, that’s the sixth most Homegrown players signed to a club in league history.
Just three years after the Academy was established, the U-16 roster made history. After a penalty shootout victory over Cal Odyssey, the Chicago Fire Academy became the first MLS club to have an academy team claim a national championship. It wouldn’t be their only title, as they would claim another in 2015 to become just one of five MLS academies to have multiple Development Academy championships.
On Aug. 20, 2010, the Fire would sign their very first Homegrown player – Victor Pineda.
If that last name sounds familiar, that’s because his younger brother, Mauricio, would follow in his footsteps a decade later. Mauricio would earn himself a Homegrown deal of his own, becoming one of Chicago Fire FC’s most reliable players in recent memory.
Family ties would be a trend for the Chicago Fire Academy, with two more pairs of brothers earning themselves a first team contract, including Andre Reynolds II and Justin Reynolds, as well as Nick Slonina and Gabriel “Gaga” Slonina.
After the U.S. Soccer Development Academy ceased operations after the 2018 season, MLS NEXT was created.
In the inaugural edition of the prestigious academy competition, it was only fitting that the only team in MLS history to win a championship in their opening season, would be the first team to win the original edition of the academy tournament.
The U-19 Fire Academy would claim MLS NEXT Cup – with a team led by Missael Rodríguez, Sergio Oregel Jr., and Justin Reynolds – who would all eventually sign deals with the first team. Rodríguez would go on to win the inaugural Golden Boot, with Oregel Jr. claiming the Golden Ball as the tournament's Most Valuable Player.
Historically, the Fire Homegrowns have played more sporadic roles within the organization. But it wasn’t until the youth movement of the late 2010’s that saw players like Djordje Mihailovic, Mauricio Pineda, and Gaga Slonina make instant impacts on the first team.
Slonina would go on to be the mainstay in net for the Fire – making 43 appearances and logging an impressive 16 clean sheets before his departure to Premier League side, Chelsea, in late 2022 for a Club-record transfer fee.
He would also be the first Homegrown to be sold to a Premier League side in franchise history.
Today, a new regime of Homegrowns has taken over for the Fire – with goalkeeper Chris Brady taking the reins from Slonina, and the duo of Pineda and Brian Gutiérrez playing huge roles in the 2023 regular season.
As it stands today, Pineda only sits two appearances away from 100, which would make him the first Homegrown in franchise history to reach triple digits.
For Gutiérrez, he currently leads the Fire in assists with seven, and has impressed many with his technical skill and finesse – making him one of the most highly-touted American prospects in the entire league.
As the 2023-24 MLS NEXT season quickly approaches, it’s important to recognize the history of the Academy, as well as welcome the promising future yet to come.
The future of Chicago Fire FC begins with a spark.
The spark of the Academy.