Former Fire star Zach Thornton back with team, coaching goalkeepers

Hired Monday as the Fire’s goalkeeper coach to replace Adin Brown after his departure to San Jose, Thornton set the standard for the franchise’s netminders during his playing career.

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Zach Thornton is one of three players to have a role in all six of the Fire’s trophies.

AP

Even though Mexican legend Jorge Campos played for the 1998 Fire, it was Zach Thornton who became the team’s first star MLS goalie.

It’s now Thornton’s job to help produce the next one.

Hired Monday as the Fire’s goalkeeper coach to replace Adin Brown after his departure to San Jose, Thornton set the standard for the franchise’s netminders during his playing career. He’s one of three players to have a role in the team’s six trophies and leads the Fire in appearances (215), starts (212) and wins (109) as a goalie.

Thornton began the Fire goalkeeping lineage that includes Jon Busch, Sean Johnson and Gabriel Slonina, something the team hopes will continue with Chris Brady. It’s not lost on Thornton that he’s being tasked with keeping that line going.

“That’s my job, that’s my responsibility to get the goalkeepers to the high level, to maintain a standard that was set in the past,” Thornton said.

To connect with players, Thornton said it’s important to earn their trust and have mutually respectful relationships. He has done that during previous stints as a goalie coach in Houston (2022) and D.C. United (2015-2021).

Something Thornton doesn’t do much with his goalies is talk about his own playing career, regardless of how much he accomplished.

“I rarely speak about my playing days when I’m coaching or teaching,” Thornton said. “It’s all about them and the situation. Yes, I have some experience and have been in those situations, but I would just use that to help convey the message. I won’t say, ‘Oh, when I was playing’ I try to stay away from that.”

As of now, Thornton’s pupils with the Fire will be Brady, 18, and 30-year-old veteran Spencer Richey. Thornton doesn’t want to “pigeonhole” how he’ll coach two players at different stages of their careers and would prefer to see how training goes and adjust from there.

If Slonina doesn’t return on loan and Brady is indeed the starter next year, Brady’s progress will be one of the most important storylines around the 2023 Fire. Thornton is impressed by Brady’s experience level with U.S. youth national teams, his goalkeeping instincts, physical frame, athleticism and eagerness to learn.

“The sky is the limit for [Brady],” said Thornton, who added that he’ll give his input on who should start in net after the preseason but the final decision will go to coach Ezra Hendrickson. 

No matter who starts in net, the Fire are hoping to move closer to their successful early years when they were one of the best clubs in U.S. soccer. Thornton is the latest staffer connected to those days, joining first-team assistants CJ Brown and Frank Klopas.

Thornton is hoping to play a part in the Fire returning to that level.

“I would love to give that back,” Thornton said. “I would love to be a part of getting this club to being consistently successful like it has been in the past and to pass that on. That would mean the world to me.”

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