When United States Men’s National Team goalkeeper Gabriel “Gaga” Slonina departed Chicago Fire FC for Chelsea, there was an opening at the number-one position. Unlike many clubs, a ready-made replacement was available, one who is also considered a highly-rated prospect with international potential. After making his first-team debut last season, Chris Brady stepped into the starting role and has staked his claim as a top young player in Major League Soccer. The teenager has been challenged and tested but continues to display poise and talent.
Born in Naperville, Illinois, Brady played for the Lisle FC Dragons and Roadrunners Soccer Club, initially as a defender, before joining the Chicago Fire academy in 2017. In March of 2020, the club signed the then-16-year-old to a Homegrown contract. In his first season, he was sent on loan to Forward Madison in the third-tier USL League One, impressing with his “demeanor, shot-stopping ability, size, and coachability.” The goalkeeper made eight appearances and registered three shutouts in eye-opening performances that belied his youth: taking over the number-one job through the end of the year, carrying the second-lowest goals-against average, and being named the league’s Young Player of the Year while finishing second in Goalkeeper of the Year voting. The early professional experience brought lessons of patience, game management, and a detail-oriented mindset.
“It really opened my mind and I would say just developed me as an adult because that’s something [that’s] not easy to do at any point in your life, but especially not at 16 years old,” Brady told Naperville Community Television. “I started that obstacle to tackle where it’s like ‘new team, new city, new club.’ So, like, how am I going to integrate into the team? How am I going to break in and hopefully gain the respect of my teammates and the coaching staff there? So that was probably one of the biggest things that I took from that. But yeah, I would say that played a crucial role in developing me as a goalkeeper. My mindset and all that, my habits for, you know, when I came back to Chicago.”
In 2021, Brady stuck mainly with the Fire, being named to the match-day roster a few times. After quarantine rules were loosened, he made a brief loan return to Forward Madison, appearing in one match for The Flamingos. During the offseason, Belgium’s Club Brugge reportedly had “considerable interest” in a transfer and saw a “formal offer” rejected.
Look at this save by Chris Brady! #cffc #cf97— Patrick McCraney (@patrickmccraney) August 23, 2020
In light of his growing profile, the Fire signed him to a contract extension through 2026 with an additional one-year option. Last year, Brady played with the newly-created reserve squad, Chicago Fire II, in MLS Next Pro. He made 12 appearances and earned five clean sheets, described as being “head and shoulders above every other goalkeeper” in the league. In the final MLS match of the season, the club handed him his first start, a 1-1 draw with the New England Revolution that allowed him to increase his “read of the game.” Everybody Soccer named him as one of the third-best American goalkeeper under the age of 24.
With Slonina now at Chelsea, Brady was expected to earn significant playing time this season. After missing the opener with a minor leg issue, he has started and gone the distance in the succeeding nine matches, becoming the second-youngest goalkeeper in league history to register a shutout. While the Fire are stuck at 14th place in the Eastern Conference with a 2-3-5 record, his performances provide some hope for the future.
“[Playing for the Fire] is an honor,” Brady shared with CBS News Chicago. “I think throughout my entire childhood, I was working for this. To now say that I am is a crazy feeling. It still doesn’t really feel real... [Slonina] set the tone for what’s expected of young keepers in Chicago and he helped me see that there are a lot of sacrifices that need to be made to attain this job and excel in this position and maybe one day make it to where he is.”
At the international level, Brady has been an infrequent call-up for the United States, beginning in the U-15 side. He has become an important player during the current cycle for the U-20 team, starting in six out of seven matches at the 2022 CONCAF U-20 Championship during the title-winning campaign. His performance earned the Golden Glove award and a nomination for U.S. U.S. Soccer Young Male Player of the Year. The teenager was expected to be on the roster for the upcoming 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup, but former Chicago manager Ezra Hendrickson said that the club “will not be releasing” him for the competition, a decision that remained in place despite his recent departure.
Standing at 6’3”, Brady possesses prototypical height for a goalkeeper, described as having “shocking” athleticism with good technique and “all of the tools.” Everybody Soccer has praised his “uncommon polish in both technical and tactical areas,” citing “meticulous development” and “the poise of a professional well beyond his years.” He is highly active when coming off of his line and maintains good footwork in both short- and long-range situations. Coaches frequently point to his hard work in training, ability to take instruction, and drive to improve.
Unreal save by Chris Brady (18-yo Chicago Fire keeper) just now in the U.S.-Mexico U-20 game pic.twitter.com/8VVNioBia6— Henry Bushnell (@HenryBushnell) September 25, 2022
“Chris is big and very athletic with good reactions which makes him a very good shot stopper,” wrote Marcus Chairez for Chasing a Cup. “In fact, for most of his youth career he was thought of as the better shot stopper in comparison to Gaga Slonina, who is a very good shot stopper at his age. Chris has worked hard to improve his ball playing skills, but you can see at times during the U20 Championships that he still has a ways to go with his touch and initiating play from the back.”
Brady has a rare opportunity this season, one that many goalkeepers are unable to experience until later in their careers. He received the chance to start and has held onto the job with little issue. As with many young players, there will be good and bad days, with Chicago ideally accepting youthful errors and continuing to support his development. If successful, the club could reap the benefits of a large transfer fee and the notability of producing another goalkeeper for the USMNT.