Chicago Fire are undergoing a large scale rebuild having acquired highly-regarded directors from European football. Here's our exclusive interview with two of them, Georg Heitz and Cedric Cattenoy.
It’s been 14 years since the Chicago Fire last lifted a piece of silverware, and over 20 years since they raised the MLS Cup. The club has only qualified for the MLS Playoffs twice in the last 10 seasons and haven’t advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs since 2009. What was once an exciting expansion team in 1998 lost its novelty after a decade and – under the ownership of Andrew Hauptman – struggled to keep pace with an ever-changing domestic league.
Last September, though, Hauptman sold the club to Joe Manseuto, and the Chicago Fire fully committed to a wholesale rebuild. The first personnel change Manseuto made in Chicago came in the form of hiring Georg Heitz, then the sporting director of FC Basel, as the club’s new sporting director. Heitz not only joined the club with experience of running a UEFA Champions League level club, but also shared Manseuto’s vision of rebuilding Chicago’s roster around the best local talent and young players.
“It will take some time, but we believe in the potential of this area,” said Heitz. “I come from a country with a population of 8,000,000 people, but we have around 10,000,000 people living [in Illinois]. Of course, there’s competition with other sports, and this is what makes the United States different from Europe, so we have to look good to get more kids in.”
Prior to Heitz’s arrival, Chicago had just five homegrown players signed to professional contracts. Then, within the span of 18 days in March, Chicago signed Brian Gutiérrez, Javier Casas, Alex Monis, Chris Brady and Allan Rodriguez to Homegrown Player contracts. While they may not all see immediate time on the field for the first-team, they will be exposed to a professional team setting early on and work with an expert in youth development, head coach Raphaël Wicky.
“One thing that was really important for me was that we needed a coach who was used to working with young players,” said Heitz. “Raphaël is used to doing this with the youth teams at Basel. He knows how to spot the weaknesses in youth players because the pressure is high, and the expectations are high.”
Wicky became Chicago’s new head coach in December after a spell with the United States under-17 national team at the 2019 Under-17 World Cup. Despite an early exit in the group stage, Wicky’s ability to implement a structured, attacking style of play so quickly was impressive. He also coached youth teams in Switzerland for several years at FC Thun, Servette FC and FC Basel between 2009 and 2017.
Chicago additionally brought in South American duo Ignacio Aliseda, a 20-year-old Designated Player, and 21-year-old Venezuelan defender Miguel Navarro to bolster their youth contingent. Aliseda has a direct, expressive style of play that will add a previously unknown air of excitement to Chicago’s attacking sequences. Navarro is a promising left-back who is member of a potential golden generation coming out of Venezuela.
“We had the objective of putting together a younger team,” Heitz added. “When Raphaël came here, we immediately sat with the experts from the academy and asked if they had any players who could train with the first-team, and they sent a few over. They performed, which is not so easy when you play with the senior team for the first time, and they progressed. We provided them with contracts because they deserved them.”
Amongst those experts was Cedric Cattenoy, the Fire’s Academy Technical Director since 2016 and a former staff member of Paris Saint-Germain’s academy. Cattenoy worked in various capacities within PSG’s youth system between 2001 and 2016. He played a pivotal role in the development of over 80 professional players, including the likes of Olympique Lyonnais forward Moussa Dembélé and Bayern München winger Kinglsey Coman.
The change he brought to Chicago was felt immediately in his willingness to be present as often as possible during academy practices. Part of his daily routine involves walking the fields and discussing each coach’s plan for training throughout the day, providing guidance and encouragement when he sees fit. Then, around 5:00 p.m., he takes another lap around the fields to get a live look at training sessions and sometimes provides words of wisdom to the players.
There is no denying the clear gap in quality between the player pool Cattenoy worked with in Paris and that of the United States or Switzerland, but he is accustomed to searching every corner of a local area for its best footballing talent. His arrival in Chicago introduced top-level experience in youth development to a region capable of consistently producing professional footballers but historically lacking in the proper tools to unlock that potential.
“When you are in a professional club, the academy’s mission is to produce players for the first-team,” Cattenoy said. “We have a vision for the academy, and we want the academy to be the soul of the club. If we are able to produce players from Chicago and the Chicago area, then we can be sure that those players will do their best and have the fight to play for the badge.”
One of the most challenging aspects of Cattenoy’s job is maintaining communication with their 11 affiliate youth clubs across six different states. Though the network allows the club to tap into a larger player pool, it can be extremely difficult to ensure the players are playing at Chicago’s standard of play and learning the club’s philosophy. Cattenoy stated that Head of Scouting Matt Pearson is one of the key pieces to ensuring this communication is met, orchestrating the club’s network of scouts to keep up with the youth teams.
“Each of the teams must complete an evaluation sheet of who they believe is ready to play for the academy,” Cattenoy said. “If we think this player has the potential, we offer them an invitation to an ID [identification] event in Chicago to assess their technical and physical depth. If they have the qualities we are looking for, then we will offer them a place with the academy.”
However, not all players are cut out to take the direct route from the academy to the first team, and the option to play in college provides players with another opportunity into the professional game. For Chicago, players like Grant Lillard and Jeremiah Gutjahr played at Indiana University for a few years before signing their Homegrown contracts with the club. Many products of MLS academies are forgotten by their parent club and lost in the SuperDraft once they age out, but Chicago are diligent about keeping tabs on their college players.
“Most of the players we are looking at in college are invited to train with the first-team during the summer to see their progression,” Cattenoy said. “It is very important to keep up with these players, and the first-team staff will even go to certain games to make their own assessments on a player’s progression.”
Chicago’s youth-centric rebuild has also opened the door for the club to add a new affiliate club. Even the likes of FC Dallas and the Seattle Sounders, who have some of the most fruitful youth academies in the country, rely on lower league affiliate teams to introduce their young players to the professional scene. For the Fire, they will hope their new affiliation with Forward Madison FC can provide the kind of environment necessary to fostering the development of their young players as they begin their professional careers.
“I’m very happy with the partnership with Madison because they have competent and good people there,” said Heitz. “I don’t think the young players have to play there. It will be something we take case by case, and I think for the next few weeks they should train with the first-team. The good thing about the United States is that you can do short-term loans that can help with how we move players around.”
Professional football across the country, and nearly across the globe, is obviously at a standstill during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, when normality does return, there is a solid foundation for Fire fans and its front office to be excited about. They not only do they have a proper crop of Homegrown players making their way into the first team, but have also managed to attract prospective international players in Aliseda and Navarro to the team.
They are led by a head coach who knows how to manage the minds and development of young footballers, and these players have full support from the team’s front office. The grassroots are in place for the Chicago Fire to springboard themselves back to the very top of MLS through local talent and the recruitment of young prospects.