The MLS' youngest regular starting goalkeeper last season talks pathways, pressure, and navigating personal relationships as a young footballer.
There has been plenty of discussion surrounding the USMNT’s goalkeeping options in recent times, and somebody who could enter those conversations in the coming years – if not earlier – is Chicago Fire’s Chris Brady.
In a position that is often known for its late bloomers, Brady is already the Fire’s starting goalkeeper at 19 years old and has quickly made a name for himself within the MLS.
Speaking exclusively to Goalkeeper.com, Brady admits that “a lot of kids in America, especially super young, aren't big fans of being goalkeepers, they don't really want to get shot with the ball and they want to be scoring the goals, they want to be doing all the flashy stuff.”
“But I’m weird like that”, he jokes. For Brady, who hails from Naperville, Illinois, a move towards the goalposts was a sporting calling. For somebody who has managed to make such an impact at that age, having made his debut in October 2022, it’s evident that such talent was - in part - natural.
It wasn’t the increasingly typical dynastic family pathway into goalkeeping, though, for the 19 year old. He admits that there are “no sports in the family”, with his dad being a musician, mum being a dancer when she was younger and his sister being “more the artistic type”. But it was after moving to a big travel club in Downers Grove, Illinois that it seemed a stint in the sticks might change the family script.
That route eventually took Chris Brady to the Fire, with a loan at USL League One club coming before his MLS debut, something that will be remembered fondly as he won the league’s Young Player of the Year. Unlike many homegrown players who have entered MLS, that didn’t include a route through the college system.
Going straight into a professional set-up and getting first-team experience at a young age is something Brady admits forced him to grow up fast.
“By 16 I had bought my car, owned it, paid it off. By 18 I had bought the house I'm sitting in. There were a lot of things maturity-wise that were sped up just because I had been thrust into the professional soccer environment.
“You start to learn how the real world works, especially the real world surrounding soccer. You start to understand contracts, money, you start to understand living situations going from one city to another. I play with guys every day who don't know where they'll be next year, and that's a scary reality, but one I've had to learn about since I've become a professional.”
Even with all of that experience, he is currently attending online college as a Communications major at SNHU because “you've got to have a plan B, just in case.”
While that decision is commendably responsible, Brady has shown enough on the pitch to suggest that he has all the tools to carve a lengthy career out for himself. Though earnest, humble, and particularly relaxed in his demeanour off the pitch, Brady’s presence on the pitch is big - and that’s not just in personality. Fire’s number one stands at a commanding 6 foot 4.
2023 saw Brady make several impressive saves in a run of eye-catching performances. In addition to referencing a double-save against Minnesota United and stopping Thiago Almada free kicks, Brady recalled a save from a free kick taken by Hany Mukhtar against Nashville SC as one of his best last season.
“We were playing at home, it was one of those where the free kick is taken from just on top of the box, so he's not going to beat you with pace, he's going to try and hit it with more accuracy than anything. And he lifted up and over the wall and it's one of those where you can't see it at first. So, you need to react as quick as you can. Quick little shuffle with my feet and then full stretch across the goal. Saved it. That's probably one of the cooler ones I made this year."
While Brady has these moments of his own, he is also at a club that has proven the pathway they can provide to goalkeepers. When he kept a clean sheet at DC United at 19 years and 29 days old, it made him the second-youngest goalkeeper to ever keep an MLS clean sheet.
The youngest remains Gabriel Slonina, who also did it for the Fire and is now on loan at Belgian club KAS Eupen from Chelsea having also made an appearance for the USMNT.
Brady feels that the goalkeeper coach of the club’s second team, Igor Dimov, is key to the emergence of exciting players in the position. “The only reason that you'll see me, Gabriel Slonina, Damian Las, Mihajlo Miskovic of our second team, and then there's two other 'keepers coming along the goalkeeper conveyor belt, is pretty much because of him,” he says. “We're expected to do things at an excellent level, rather than just an okay level. He really sets the bar high.”
That tough approach was difficult to adapt to at first, but has got magnificent results. Brady admits: “My first training session with the academy when I had first met Igor, I actually did cry. And if he was here, right now, he'd probably tell you the story because he thinks it's hilarious.”
It’s an approach that is as tough holistically as it is physically, but one rooted in care for and understanding of individuals. Looking into the mentality behind the approach, Brady explains that “he's more interested in breaking you down emotionally, breaking you down physically and then rebuilding you in a much stronger fashion, and a much more durable fashion, where you can then withstand the harsh treatments you'll face in the professional environment and maybe the collegiate environment if you don't make it that far.
“But for every one of the goalkeepers he's strongly cared about, I've seen him do the same thing. He treats them with respect, even if he is firm - he'll tell you straight up. That's probably the type of coaching I respond to the best to.”
In addition to that talent, responding positively to coaching is something that Brady feels has been vital for his development and progression through the ranks.
“At the ages of 14, 15, 16 I still had a pretty open mind,” he says. “I still approached everything with a learning outlook on what can I learn here? What could I change? What could I adapt to? I know a lot of goalkeepers who had their style and then they shut out any other opportunities to acquire new skills and learn new things. And then they ended up falling off, I don't even think they play soccer anymore.”
Both that open approach and impressive displays have seen Brady represent his country at U15, U19 and now U23 level. He is working with Russell Payne following his latest step up the national team levels and has featured against Japan and Morocco in that age group.
Something that will be a positive sign for any American goalkeeper is how Brady notes the system has "become more streamlined and more clear on how they like 'keepers to play” in recent years.
Speaking directly about Payne, the 19-year-old says: “He's very clear and works very hard with the head coach of the U23s on how he'd like me to play in games, how he wants me to build up, how he wants me to play in the run of play, what he expects from me saves-wise, communication-wise, set piece-wise, all that.”
Considering the calibre of USMNT goalkeepers plying their trade in Europe, including the aforementioned Slonina, Nottingham Forest’s Matt Turner and Cardiff City’s Ethan Horvath, as well as the legendary collective of 2000s-era USA shot-stoppers once the Premier League, where Brady may end up next is a natural question.
His response is that: “For now, I'm more focused on what I can achieve here [at Chicago Fire] and how I can become a better goalkeeper here. But yeah, that's definitely something on the bucket list.”
While that next step is being discussed, it is easy to forget how meteoric Brady’s rise has already been to this stage. After all, having only played one MLS match before the most recent campaign, he went on to play 30 of a possible 34 matches and kept nine clean sheets in 2023.
There is a mentality shift in taking that step up, in addition to the increase in quality that Brady is playing with and against. “I have had those moments where I've backed up and really thought, ‘Man, I don't know if I'll be able to maybe live up to people's expectations,’ or I may not be able to follow through with what this coach is asking of me,” Brady admits.
“For me, that feeling kind of takes you over when you're sitting and doing nothing. But when you're on the field, you get that sense of fun, and like this is what I live for. And then it all comes rushing back those feelings of joy, success, hard work, it truly does keep you sane.
“So, I feel like if I were to ever doubt myself, which I have before, like, is this exactly what I want to be doing with my life? Can I execute the way people want me to? Will I get as far as people project? It all kind of goes away, it all kind of fades out once I'm on the field playing because at the end of the day it's a game that I love.”
Taking to the field thing that will help away from the pitch is his friendship group.
“Before I had achieved any of this success, I was friends with the same group of guys I am right now. I know a lot of footballers struggle with that, figuring out if the people around them are genuinely trying to be friends with them because they want to, or because of other reasons, maybe success, fame, money, whatever it is. But I don't have that worry. I'm thankful for that.
“It's something that's cool to them", the 19 year old continues.
"They get to come to games for free, because I'm still living at home, and we see each other a couple times a week, hang out, watch TV, watch football, just have fun. But it hasn't really changed them, which is something I'm thankful for. I'd say we still have the same connections that we have had in the past, going all the way back to seventh or eighth grade.”
Being a footballer is naturally demanding, though, both on and off the pitch. Brady admits that the fact he was “always gone, always travelling, always doing something”, meant that he struggled to be fully present at first, which put some stress on the relationships with friends.
“It took a little bit of re-calibrating”, he adds.
“I needed to undergo a little bit of realisation to understand that I need to balance soccer with personal relationships. That was a tough thing, but it's something that I'm thankful that I'm still here because I can do it pretty easily. All it takes is a quick drive back to my hometown.”
These lessons in navigating both life and football will continue to come for Brady as he moves forward through the professional game. If this young American carries on the way he has progressed so far, it will be incredibly exciting to see where take him.