When it was announced that legendary defender C.J. Brown would be returning to the Fire family last month, you felt like a family member had just returned from a long trip abroad. Admit it: You did the “C.J. Dance” once or twice. We all know C.J.’s back but his return as an assistant coach wasn’t always as clear. Through directives at the top and a desire on both sides to see the 13-year Fire veteran back in Chicago, C.J.’s return was secured.
Here’s how it happened:
C.J. Brown brought his 13-year Fire career to an end the day before the team’s final game of the 2010 season but the veteran of 372 competitive matches for the Men in Red still sought a chance to stay with the club in some capacity.
During the course of 2010, Brown had discussions with then head coach Carlos de los Cobos and the Fire technical leadership team, a post-playing position with the club didn’t pan out.
A free agent for the first time since 1998, Brown instead took an assistant coaching job under Jason Kreis at Real Salt Lake, earning an education in a new area of the game from one of American soccer’s top up-and-coming head coaches.
As RSL found success over the course of two-and-a-half seasons, rumors began to swirl last summer regarding new MLS expansion club New York City FC’s interest in Kreis, who along with some of his staff, were out of contract in Salt Lake at season’s end.
Around the same time, Fire ownership and club executives were working to develop plans for the soon-to-be-created Chicago Fire Soccer Center on the city’s North Side. Estimated as a $15-20 million investment, the new Soccer Center is a continuation of Fire ownership’s deep commitment to promoting the game in Chicago, with a clear purpose of expanding the club’s footprint in the city.
The initiative includes not only building the physical facility but also a broad, long-term programmatic vision with benefits for both the club and the ever-growing soccer community. With the scale of the initiatives, it was a priority to secure someone who resonated with the soccer community in Chicago and who would be based at 3626 N. Talman Ave.
“Between this new venture and the new Juniors club, we were looking for an individual that could be the face of the Fire in the city,” said Fire Chief Operating Officer Atul Khosla. “During a planning session with Andrew [Hauptman], he asked, ‘What about C.J.?’”
“We have been on a mission to build a best-in-class team and are always looking for opportunities to bring important and impactful players back into the Fire family, so I thought it was a great idea,” added Khosla.
With that, permission was asked of Real Salt Lake for the opportunity to speak with Brown, which RSL granted, and he quietly flew to Chicago to interview for the position and meet with Fire leadership.
“We spent a day in Chicago, at the end of which, Andrew and I spoke,” said Khosla. “I told him I agreed with his assessment that C.J. is our guy. Andrew gave the green light to make it happen and we made C.J. an offer right away.
“C.J. was sincere in his reaction, admitting that he would need to think about it before making a decision. He was intrigued especially by the chance to be a key part of this new endeavor, but it wasn’t a First Team position. When he said that he had to talk to his wife about the details, I knew we had a real shot at getting him back.”
Brown considered the opportunity, and mulled over the idea of leaving the first team side of professional soccer. Throughout the process, he maintained a desire to return to Chicago and he accepted the position in early October, days after RSL fell to D.C. United in the U.S. Open Cup final.
“The opportunity with the Chicago Fire Juniors City and the Soccer Center was very compelling,” said Brown. “Even when I was playing, coaching the youth was something I enjoyed doing and it seemed like a great opportunity to get my family back to Chicago. It all came out of nowhere but it was great knowing that I was Andrew’s and the team’s first choice, and it was the right time for me in my career."
“We kept it really quiet,” continued Brown. “Jason and Garth [Lagerway] knew, and everything was set for us to move back. I was behind the scenes trying to get an idea of what was going on with the club and get my feet planted for working with the Center.”
On October 30, Hauptman set a new course, reorganizing and introducing Frank Yallop as the club’s new head coach and director of soccer.
Yallop’s first order of business was to determine who would be part of his new technical team along with getting up to speed on his new roster and the team’s salary budget.
“I spoke with Andrew and he mentioned that since C.J. was already confirmed to come back I might want to consider him for my staff,” said Yallop. “After knowing that, things really fell into place.”
“Right at the start of the playoffs, Frank called me and said it was a no-brainer for me to be working with the First Team,” said Brown. “Initially, I was both conflicted and excited as I had already accepted the Soccer Center position, but Frank told me it was all part of the same family, everyone was supportive, and we would figure things out.”
Brown’s focus remained on RSL and their run to the MLS Cup final, but in the days following their penalty defeat to Sporting KC, he and Yallop were on the phone hammering out an agreement.
After the MLS Cup Final, the Fire officially announced Brown’s return to the club as first assistant coach. Brown moved back to Chicago just before Christmas and said he’s looking forward to working with his new boss and being back at the club he feels so deeply connected to.
Asked about the decision to bring back a Fire legend, Yallop said, “C.J. really is the perfect choice. He has proven himself, not only as a coach and player, but also as someone who embodies the spirit and character of Chicago and the Fire.”
Following an interesting process between the front office and technical sides, a certain camaraderie seems to have been built in bringing a club legend back to Chicago.
“We’re looking forward to all sitting down together in the coming weeks, grabbing a beer and I can remind Frank that we signed C.J. to a front office contract before he came on as a coach,” Khosla joked.