The next step in C.J. Brown’s career happened almost completely by accident, a chance meeting with a team from Salt Lake City when he was supposed to be considering a job in Miami.
But when the longtime Chicago Fire defender bumped into Real Salt Lake general manager Garth Lagerwey during last week’s MLS Combine in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a simple conversation steamrolled into a sitdown with RSL head coach Jason Kreis, and Brown was suddenly in the middle of an unexpected and very big opportunity.
Strangely enough, however, Kreis and his RSL coaching staff weren’t quite sold on Brown when they first talked about the vacancy left by new Chivas USA boss Robin Fraser. The soft-spoken Brown effectively crept out the back door to retirement last fall and never bothered to openly express his desire to enter the coaching ranks, even though he’d been working as the assistant director of coaching for the Chicago Fire Juniors and the director of coaching for the Elmhurst Elite youth clubs in suburban Chicago.
So when Brown traveled to Florida to consider taking a job with former Fire goalkeeper coach Daryl Shore at NASL club Miami FC, it came as a surprise to the RSL brass that Brown was a coach in waiting.
“Most people knew me as just a soccer player, and probably not one of the nicest guys,” Brown told MLSsoccer.com. “My fear was that people wouldn’t perceive me as a coach, so I didn’t really go around telling everyone that yeah, I wanted to coach. I always knew once I retired I would try to stay in MLS, I just never made a push to let everyone know about it.”
But Brown jumped at the chance to impress Kreis and the RSL staff, widely regarded as one of the steadiest and most closely knit groups in the league. Brown’s career longevity – he holds every durability record on the Fire’s books after 13 years, including games and minutes played – was one of his greatest selling points.
“He’s been a great defender in our league for a really long time,” Kreis said. “What I really like about that is that I don’t think you can qualify him as a player in our league that has stayed around so long because he was so talented. In fact, I think it’s more towards the exact opposite – he’s stayed around so long because he’s wanted it and worked so hard for it.”
[inline_node:326849]While Brown doesn’t necessarily carry the individual accolades of the departed Fraser, he’s appeared in at least 18 games each of his 13 seasons in Chicago, except during an injury-riddled 2008. He won four US Open Cup titles with the Fire, and was the lone player in a Chicago jersey still around in 2010 who won the team’s only MLS Cup during their inaugural year in 1998.
Names like Peter Nowak, Chris Armas, Zach Thornton and Jesse Marsch came and went through the years, but Brown’s relationship with the club endured. Only former D.C. United striker and LA Galaxy mainstay Cobi Jones played more matches with one club than Brown, leaving Fire followers to adhere to one fitting mantra year in and year out: “Death, taxes and C.J. Brown.”
“[RSL] have made all their players happy, and brought them back, and that reminds me of the Fire days in the past,” Brown said. “They try to keep a core group of people, and build around that. They’re on the same path we were on in Chicago way back then.”
Despite his lengthy ties with Chicago and a desire to land a coaching job with the Fire, Brown said talks about a position with the club were minimal. After 13 years as the one of the definitive faces of the Fire, Brown will leave Chicago on Friday to join Real Salt Lake’s staff for preseason activities.
“[Kreis] is a hard worker, and he expressed to me that he wants the same from me,” Brown said. “And people who have known me all these years know that I’m definitely not afraid to do that.”