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"You gotta get these kids to buy in:" How the Fire are helping to train Chicago's community soccer coaches

Patrick McCraney Avatar
May 18, 2022

Long before he was an assistant coach with the Chicago Fire, Junior Gonzalez was a kid with a dream in Southern California.

He was able to turn that dream into a soccer scholarship at UCLA, and later, a career coaching in college and the professional ranks. Gonzalez and Fire head coach Ezra Hendrickson were colleagues in both the Seattle Sounders and LA Galaxy organizations, and when Hendrickson got the top job with the Fire, he knew he needed Gonzalez by his side–Hendrickson called his old friend Gonzalez his “first choice.”

Gonzalez has only been here for a few months, but he’s already working to make an impact in his new city. 

“I’m not a native Chicagoan, but I had very similar experiences in South Central LA, where I grew up,” Gonzalez told CHGO. “I see a parallel with a lot of the young talent that could start touching a soccer ball as opposed to a baseball, boxing, basketball or whatever other sport.”

The Fire and US Soccer Foundation teamed up to help 70 community coaches earn coaching licenses Monday night – Photo courtesy of the Fire

On Monday night, the Fire and the U.S. Soccer Foundation teamed up to host a mentoring program for 70 local youth coaches, most of whom are volunteers in the Fire’s P.L.A.Y.S. Program, which works to bring soccer and social emotional learning skills to kids in underserved communities. In the past few years, the two organizations have teamed up to install 50 hard court soccer pitches around the city. Now, they’re working to train the volunteers that coach the kids on those courts. 

As part of the event, Gonzalez shared his experiences as a player and coach, and those in attendance were able to earn a U.S. Soccer Grassroots coaching license.

“It’s an opportunity for them to get the resources that they need, whether it’s information on how to run sessions, whether it’s just the organizational piece, I think this license was for 7v7, which is the most important,” Gonzalez said. “It’s the young kids that can do that in a gym, on a basketball court outside, on a grass field. It’s about giving them ideas on how to organize and teach the game.”

Junior Gonzalez – Courtesy of Chicago Fire

The Grassroots licenses are U.S. Soccer’s latest plan to help give volunteer coaches the basic tools they need to coach the game. After grassroots, coaches can progress to a D, C, B, A or Pro license. For many of these coaches, this one course could be the start of a career filled with learning.

“Myself, I started at the E license in Southern California, and I’m still, I’ve gotten the pro license, and now I’m gonna do my UEFA courses,” Gonzalez said. “It never ends. You want to constantly be around people that you can get more information from, and see how they break down the game. It could be something as simple as a warm up, to something on the tactical side.”

This program is about helping coaches give kids a better soccer experience. After that, who knows? Maybe one of them will go out and inspire the next Gaga Slonina or Brian Gutierrez.

“You gotta get these kids to buy in, you gotta get them to want to play soccer instead of basketball or other sports, you gotta get them excited to come to the courts, and excited to play with each other,” Gonzalez said. “That’s the beauty of what we did Monday night.”

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