Homegrown rookie Drew Conner hasn’t played a competitive game for the Chicago Fire yet, but he has been able to gain professional experience and playing time.
Conner began the season on loan with Saint Louis FC, the Fire’s affiliate in the United Soccer League. He racked up 12 appearances, totaling 462 minutes, before being recalled to the Fire in mid-June.
Conner came up during a time when the Fire were thin in midfield due to injuries. With Saint Louis, he played both defensive and attacking midfield. He has stayed with the Fire even now that the team has been healthier. Coach Veljko Paunovic said the Fire were impressed with Conner’s progression.
“We believe in him,” Paunovic said in June after Conner was recalled. “We are watching every single game he played with Saint Louis. We know what is going on there because we have very good communication with the club and he is a project and this is a part of the project.”
Conner came off the bench six times and didn’t play a full 90 minutes in any match. Conner was on the Fire bench for the first game after he was recalled, at Philadelphia on June 22. He did not play and has not made a matchday lineup since.
The 22-year-old’s struggles to get minutes with the Fire are why the team sent him out on loan in the first place.
“I didn’t look at it necessarily as a negative,” Conner said. “It’s part of my development as a pro. I’m going down there and just training everyday and actually getting minutes, whereas it would have been a lot tougher in the beginning of the season for me (with the Fire). Now I’m back and fighting and grinding everyday.”
[SHOP: Pick up your own Fire jersey]
Conner said the biggest adjustment for him coming out of college at Wisconsin was the speed of the game, especially mentally. The other big change was playing in front of big crowds, which is something Conner clearly enjoys from the way he talks about it.
Saint Louis FC is averaging around 5,000 fans per game and some of the away crowds, Conner mentioned Sacramento, impressed the Cary native.
“I remember in preseason my first game dressing was against the Portland Timbers, who has one of the craziest crowds,” Conner said. “They were selling out their preseason games. I was looking around like ‘Yo, this is crazy.’ So going down to St. Louis and being in front of their supporters’ group, the St. Louligans, and just playing in front of live drums and people screaming and stuff kind of prepared me to step up to this level.”
[MORE FIRE: Michael de Leeuw 'excited' to make Fire debut]
The other thing that has stood out to Conner so far is the schedule. College soccer only plays in the fall while the MLS regular season schedule runs from March through the end of October. The longer season and extra travel takes its toll, but the cramped schedule of college was challenging in a different way.
“I just think they do a really good job of managing your body here,” Conner said. “[In college] you would play a game on Friday and then you would train on Saturday and then you would play Sunday. Sometimes that Saturday session wasn’t easy, which kind of made a lot of the players mad sometimes. That was just kind of the college mentality. You go out and grind every single day, whereas here you get to manage your body. You’re not as tired all the time.”
With the Fire roster as healthy as it has been all season, playing time with the Fire may not be easy to come by for Conner. For now he is just trying to learn, whether that be with the Fire or back with Saint Louis FC.