When asked about his playing career, CJ Brown laughs and smiles. He does that often.
The New York City FC assistant coach was a tenacious and physical central defender who enjoyed a successful 13-year playing career with the Chicago Fire.
“It’s always fun to go back,” Brown said. “I consider it my second home. It’s a special place for me.”
Brown returns to his former home as New York City FC (1-3-3; 6 points) faces the Chicago Fire (2-3-0; 6 points) tonight at Toyota Park.
Kickoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. EDT. The match will be broadcast nationally on Univision Deportes Network and live streamed on their website and app (iOS and Android). Fans can also listen to it on 970 AM or WQBU 92.7 FM.
Brown holds the club record with 372 appearances. The first overall pick in the 1998 MLS Supplemental Draft enjoyed a bountiful career winning the MLS Cup in 1998, the 2003 Supporters’ Shield and four U.S. Open Cups (1998, 2000, 2003, 2006).
He retired in 2010 and was inducted into the club’s Ring of Fire on May 9, 2012.
“I think I probably could have taken all sorts of contracts to try to make more money, but Chicago was good to me,” Brown said. “If I was a guy who bounced around I probably wouldn’t have succeeded as much. I’m based more on stability; especially when I was playing I wanted to be focused. I gave everything I had as a professional athlete to Chicago and I want to say it paid off in a lot of ways.”
After retiring, Brown, who also had 15 caps for the United States Men’s National Team (1998-2003), began his coaching career. He was hired as an assistant coach at Real Salt Lake on January 18, 2010, joining head coach Jason Kreis’ staff. On December 11, 2013, he exchanged the Claret and Cobalt for more familiar colors – joining the Fire’s coaching staff.
Less than a year after his return to the Windy City, Brown headed east to rejoin former RSL colleagues Kreis and Miles Joseph at New York City FC; Major League Soccer’s newest franchise.
It was an opportunity Brown said he couldn’t pass up.
“This is a rare opportunity any coach will ever get to start a club from the beginning, hand pick players and set the philosophy of the club,” Brown said. “Any coach would want that opportunity. It was hard leaving a place I considered home. I’m very comfortable with the coaching staff (Jason and Miles), so I knew what they expected of me.
“Experiencing something like this is huge for a career and I think it’s a great opportunity and I’ve always wanted to see what New York was about and now I’m getting a good experience.”
Brown said he continues to be in the right place at the right time.
His first bit of good fortune in that regard came during the 1997 U.S. Open Cup. Brown’s San Francisco Bay Seals made a remarkable run to the tournament’s semifinals, before bowing out to runner-up D.C. United, 2-1.
Bob Bradley, D.C. United’s coach, was then named head coach of the newly created Chicago Fire organization, which was set to begin MLS play the following season. The Fire lost a coin-flip to fellow expansion side Miami, which awarded the Fusion the first pick in the 1998 MLS College Draft.
The Fire instead got the first selection in the Supplemental Draft on February 1, 1998, where they picked Brown.
“It’s crazy. My career playing and now in coaching, I’ve been at the right place at the right time,” Brown said. “I was always taught to put your head down, work hard and good things will happen and so far they have. It’s been great for me. The whole chance going to Chicago was crazy. Going into that combine, nobody knew who I was; Bob probably knew because we played against him.
“You read all of the articles about the players who were supposed to go first, second and third and I was nowhere near that. I went there to try to make a name for myself. It was a great experience; it changed my life. I appreciate everything Chicago has done for me. Honestly, I wouldn’t be where I’m at right now if it wasn’t for Chicago.”