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Change of Position Pushed FC Cincinnati Academy Star Stefan Chirila to Higher Levels, But Work Is Just Beginning

May 22, 2024 - Major League Soccer (MLS)
FC Cincinnati News Release

With a Golden Boot already in the trophy case, FC Cincinnati Academy forward Stefan Chirila is starting to make a name for himself and prove what the Academy can do for the club. The 17-year-old Pennsylvania native signed his first professional contract with FC Cincinnati, the club announced yesterday, and will join the first team full-time in 2025.

A lot has changed for the Pennsylvania native over the past year. A change in home, club and position has all come during a jet-fuel-hot season with the FCC Academy U17s. After being at the Philadelphia Union Academy for six years, Chirila and his family decided it was time for a change, so the then 16-year-old looked for opportunities elsewhere. Director of Player Development Larry Sunderland, who had been keeping tabs on the then midfielder, scooped him up and put him with the U17s when the opportunity arose after a brief trial period.

It was during that trial period, though, that U17s Head Coach, Christiano Scapolo saw something in the player that made him think a move from the midfield to striker position would be best.

Since then, Chirila has scored 45 goals across all competitions and has signed an MLS Homegrown deal with FC Cincinnati that will begin in 2025. In the meantime, the youngster has concurrently signed an MLS NEXT Pro contract to continue playing with FC Cincinnati 2, where he has already been named MLS NEXT Rising Star of the Matchday twice for his work with the team.

"When I came on trial I originally came as a midfielder and on my second day here (Coach Christian Scapolo) asked me to try out the striker spot and, honestly, it just felt like a natural fit," Chirila said. "Like it was meant to be. It was surprising to be honest, but it was just easy to go with the flow and keep performing."

Chirila is, in many ways, the exact success story of how academies can successfully develop promising professional talent. The 17-year-old doesn't come to the game with professional pedigree or family history of athletic achievement. His father, Sorin, immigrated to the United States from Romania. He brought his love of the game with him, a love he passed on to Stefan and his brother Andreji (a current Philadelphia Union Academy member) that took root in their boyhoods where the three would kick the ball around the yard and recreate moments from their favorite players. Stefan, in particular, played as Cristiano Ronaldo, he says, trying to curl in kicks like the Real Madrid star would in the Champions League finals he would watch.

"My dad never played professionally but he's played and loved the game his whole life," Chirila said of his father. "He still plays in his Sunday league. He's from Romania and he would take me and my brother and play all the time in the backyard and just kick the ball around with us like it was a big final or something like that. He just loves the game too and shared that with me."

"When I saw Stefan, I knew Stefan was more of a midfielder, but when he came to us I saw his ability around the goal so I said 'I want to keep him closer to the goal because the way he strikes the ball is something different," FC Cincinnati Academy U17s Head Coach Christiano Scapolo said. "He's a very talented player, but he's very deserving. He's been consistent for the whole year and I think he's only going to progress even further."

Scapolo, Head Coach of the U17s who took down River Plate and Atlas FC Academies at the Generation adidas Cup, was a dynamic player who made over 170 appearances between Serie A and Serie B in Italy for clubs like Bologna, AS Roma, Atalanta, and Napoli. As Head Coach, Scapolo has preached the development of a player holistically, imparting players with technical and tactical knowledge but also highlighting the importance of playing on and as part of a team. Not just individuals.

The work done at the Generation adidas Cup thrust Chirila and the FC Cincinnati Academy into the limelight, but is more of a testament to the job done in the leadup to that event. For the first time in club history, both the U15 team and the U17 team made the knockout stages of the biggest academy event in the country. Part of that performance came when Chirila and FC Cincinnati upset the Allentown, PA, native's old club, Philadelphia Union.

"It was good to see (Stefan) score against his former team," Scapolo grinned. "Playing against high level competition in that environment helps the kids build confidence, and that really helped in that sense."

The shift to striker has been as successful a move as possible for the 17-year-old, who club leaders have described as having a nose for the goal, great instincts, and a difficult-to-teach finishing touch. Chirila has scored at every level possible in the leadup to his professional signing. The 41 goals across youth competitions and the GA Cup Golden Boot are one thing, but the teenage scoring star has already made an impact at the MLS NEXT Pro level, appearing in seven matches and scoring four times in his last three games as the second team has set a club-record five-game winning streak since he joined the group in full.

"He will have a role with first-team training moving forward. That's just a credit to his development and his production at different levels," FC Cincinnati Head Coach Pat Noonan said of Chirila. "The way he takes the ball at the goal is very know, he's a goal scorer. And goal scorers are unique, and what does that look like, at a higher level and against bigger, more physical, faster players? We'll continue to test him in our training environment."

"He will be given opportunities at least to be with our group during the week with training, and then hopefully he continues to contribute obviously, for the second team. (He is) a nice young talent and it's not just the goals, I think the way he's able to hold the ball, the recognition in the game if he's isolated, if it's not the moment to attack one-on-one (when to) step on the ball, allow your team to move up the field. I think he has a really good feel for the game."

In deciding to leave the Philadelphia Union Academy, in some ways blocked at his position by other prospects the Union prioritized over him, the 17-year-old had several other MLS clubs interested in bringing him in. However, the opportunity presented at FC Cincinnati positioned him best to succeed and provided a pathway for further development that current first-team players with homegrown opportunities have seen. For example, Gerardo "Dado" Valenzuela is another youngster who came to the FC Cincinnati Academy from another area (in Dado's case, south Florida) and has excelled since arriving.

When Chirila made the jump to FC Cincinnati from Philadelphia, the club had already pre-negotiated to acquire the homegrown rights of the player, meaning the investment in the player has already paid off in a small way by developing him to this point where the initial investment became more valuable. It is not uncommon to bring in an academy player from another MLS club without spending that early investment, mitigating the potential cost if that player does not develop into a first-team or MLS NEXT Pro option.

But given the nationwide hype around Chirila's performances, the club likely saved itself significant financial costs by prepaying and not allowing Philadelphia a chance to retain the player now that he is a more proven commodity.

"We're proud to have signed Stefan to his first professional contract," said Chris Albright, FC Cincinnati General Manager, in a press release. "Stefan's success is a testament to his hard work, as well as the work done by our Academy staff and MLS NEXT Pro staff. He already possesses great instincts around goal, and we're excited for his continued development at FC Cincinnati."

The goal for Chirila now is to continue to improve and perform at higher and higher levels. With each opportunity at a new level, the challenge grows, and while Chirila has proven himself thus far, the biggest jump is now there for him to make. As a kid, the only career Stefan imagined for himself was being a professional soccer player, taking the field and playing the game he loves and making that his life's work.

So few get to live out that dream, but now, he's got his foot in the door and says he knows the work is just beginning. Not ending.

"I always grew up watching soccer and wanting to be one of those guys I watched," Chirila said. "That was my dream and now it just takes hard work. That's the path I want to keep moving forward with, just continue working on building my abilities. I'm grateful for what's going on and I just want to keep going and moving forward towards a higher professional level."

Chirila has now participated in first-team training a handful of times and has gotten a feel for what is expected of him in that group. He will spend most of his time training with FC Cincinnati 2 but will make the jump to the first team when called upon.

The jump to the main group can be intimidating, but once he took to the field, he felt as comfortable as ever. But some first-teamers helped bridge the gap before his first training session. FCC captain Luciano Acosta, a player whom Chirila says he deeply admires for his work ethic and skills (don't we all, Stefan), spoke with the youngster ahead of his first session to help him out. Goalkeeper Alec Kann also invited Chirila to breakfast at the team facility on the morning of their first training to get to know him and give some words of advice and encouragement.

"Alec sat down with me, introduced me to the guys, and told me what to expect...I was really grateful for that," Chirila said. " I was really nervous at the beginning, then when I got the text saying 'you're training with the first team tomorrow,'' I was super nervous. But once I stepped on the field, I completed the first pass. It was just like a normal training."

"Obviously I have work physically, technically and tactically to do, but if I keep doing what I've been doing and working hard, it will all work out."

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