Fire

Drew Conner back to 'grinding' with Fire after St. Louis loan

Drew Conner back to 'grinding' with Fire after St. Louis loan

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.”

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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.

Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason

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USA TODAY

Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason

Coach Veljko Paunovic still went with a second-choice lineup to start the Fire's preseason match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Wednesday, but the second half featured the first preseason action for Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Schweinsteiger came on for the second half, along with Nemanja Nikolic, Johan Kappelhof and a few other Fire regulars. The German sat out the first four preseason games, but looked sharp in his 45 minutes.

One of the highlights was this smooth move between two defenders:

Schweinsteiger also had an impressive switch pass to set up a shot for second-round pick Diego Campos in the final minutes of the game. Campos drilled the shot on target, but was unable to beat the goalkeeper.

The team did not say Schweinsteiger was injured despite the repeated absences in matches. The Fire have dealt with injuries to Matt Polster, Luis Solignac, Daniel Johnson and rookie Grant Lillard this preseason. None of those four, along with Dax McCarty, played in the 0-0 draw.

The Fire next play Saturday at Orlando in a final match in Florida before returning to Chicago. The Fire also play Tulsa, the team's USL affiliate, at Toyota Park on March 3 before taking on Sporting Kansas City in the season opener on March 10.

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

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USA TODAY

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

It may be a good thing that the Fire’s originally scheduled season opener March 3 at Colorado got moved back.

The Fire’s preseason has been riddled with injuries to key players and the extra week may end up being needed to get the team ready for the season. Four players (not counting the already known long-term injuries to Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic) sat out Saturday’s game against Florida Gulf Coast University due to injury: Daniel Johnson (a right ankle injury suffered in a game against Philadelphia on Feb. 8), Grant Lillard (left knee), Matt Polster (left knee) and Luis Solignac (left hip).

Polster’s injury is especially notable because he has had recurring left knee problems since first suffering a sprain in the 2016 season finale at Toronto. Polster missed the first nine games of 2017 due to the injury and missed three more in August due to a related injury.

The 24-year-old, who is now the longest tenured player on the team and the only player remaining from before general manager Nelson Rodriguez’s tenure began at the end of the 2015 season, arrived with the Fire after playing with the U.S. national team in January. He played all 90 minutes on Jan. 28 against Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Bastian Schweinsteiger still hasn’t played in the preseason and the team hasn’t listed him as injured.

All the absences, combined with rest for some of the team’s regulars, resulted in a starting lineup against Florida Gulf Coast that featured two players who have appeared in an official match with the Fire. Three trialists and four draft picks started.

Four of the Fire’s seven scheduled preseason matches are in the books. The Fire lost 2-1 to Montreal on Feb. 14. One of the bright spots was a rare set piece goal after the Fire trailed the Impact 2-0. Dax McCarty headed in a free kick from Diego Campos. Campos has been dangerous on set pieces, hitting the post with a free kick and assisting a goal from a corner kick in Saturday’s 2-0 win against Florida Gulf Coast.

Next up is a match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Feb. 21. Next Saturday the Fire play at Orlando to finish up play in Florida.

The Fire close out the preseason March 3 against the team’s USL affiliate, Tulsa, at Toyota Park before the season opener on March 10.