Fire

Drew Conner moves positions to get his first MLS start

Drew Conner moves positions to get his first MLS start

For years Drew Conner was warned this might happen.

Growing up as a defensive midfielder, Conner was told by coaches early in his career that a move to right back was something he needed to be ready for. That move finally happened this season as the Chicago Fire’s homegrown player made his first MLS start at the LA Galaxy on Saturday and did so at his new position.

“In college and all throughout my youth career, coaches always kind of hinted that it would happen at some point, that I would transition into that position,” Conner said. “I think you kind of see it sometimes with a lot of defensive mids that come out of college and come into the league.”

The combination of the Fire’s glut of central midfielders and a lack of depth at right back made the move a somewhat obvious choice for coach Veljko Paunovic. Michael Harrington, who has typically played more left back than right back in his career, started the first eight matches of the season at right back.

Conner had been learning the new position since the start of the season. After only making appearances on loan as a rookie in the USL last season, Conner had made four substitute appearances for the Fire in 2017, including a 12-minute stint at right back against New England on April 15.

“Since right after preseason I’ve kind of been jumping in that position in practice,” Conner said. “So I’ve been getting a lot of reps there in training. When I got on the field I was kind of just focusing on keeping that line and keeping my hips open and watching the wide mid.”

Based on where he was playing in training leading up to the LA game, the Cary native had an idea that he would be starting. Paunovic confirmed Conner’s suspicion in the airport before traveling to LA.

[MORE FIRE: Matt Lampson believes he is 'vastly improved' from last year]

The Wisconsin product’s first assignment involved going up against Romain Alessandrini, who already has four goals and four assists in his first nine games with the Galaxy, Premier League veteran and England national teamer Ashley Cole and then speedy winger Emmanuel Boateng when he subbed into the match just before halftime.

“All those guys are really quick so when the centerbacks, the center mids got the ball I just made sure I had a couple yards of starting space and was able to keep with them,” Conner said. “I think I played pretty well. I thought my positioning was pretty good. The second half they kind of started to overload that right side, starting overlapping more. Their wide mids started cutting in so there was some chaos going over on my side, but as far as most of my 1v1 challenges were pretty good. On the ball I thought I was pretty clean going forward.”

Conner went 75 minutes before being subbed out for Jonathan Campbell. His teammates agreed that Conner had a good first MLS start.

“I think he did quite well,” Bastian Schweinsteiger said. “It’s not easy when you play your first match and against LA. It’s not easy, but I think he did a good job. It should give him confidence.”

“I thought Drew played really well,” Dax McCarty said. “First start on the road in LA against some really, really talented attacking players in (Giovani) Dos Santos, (Gyasi) Zardes and Alessandrini. I thought he held his own really well. He probably saved a goal for us in the first half on the cross when he stayed with the runner and put a lot of pressure on him. So overall a really good performance from him and hopefully he can build on it.”

Conner’s dad made the trip to watch the game, but that wasn’t exactly due to the special occasion of his first start.

“My dad pretty much goes to all my games,” Conner said with a laugh. “Even the ones in college I don’t think he missed a lot of away games. I pretty much assume he’s coming to every one.”

Before this season Conner’s only experience playing defense was a short stint at right back last season when he was with St. Louis in the USL. He said he had no complaints about the position switch, but does still hope he can return to the midfield.

“You see some of those (defensive midfielders) like Callum Mallace, for example,” Conner said. “He played at Marquette. He played for the Montreal Impact. He played a lot of right back his rookie and second year and now he’s moving back into the center. I think defensive mids are very versatile players and you can kind of put them anywhere and they’ll do a decent job.”

Even a win showed how injuries could derail Fire's playoff run

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USA TODAY

Even a win showed how injuries could derail Fire's playoff run

Major League Soccer has earned a reputation as a league of very fine margins.

The league’s desired goal of parity means only a couple very good or very bad teams are notably better or worse than most of the pack. A couple key injuries leave a big mark on a team.

When the Fire lost six of seven matches after the Gold Cup break injuries were an easy explanation for the team’s slump. Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster were both in the middle of breakout seasons and their absences coincided with the dropoff in results. They returned and the team has showed improvement in a 4-1-2 stretch since the skid ended.

The recent run has secured a playoff berth, but a new group of injuries have popped up at similar times and could doom the Fire’s chances of doing any damage in the playoffs. In Sunday’s 3-2 win against Philadelphia, a team already eliminated from playoff contention and which has just one win on the road all season, the Fire were without Bastian Schweinsteiger, Juninho and Michael de Leeuw. David Accam, who has been nursing a hip injury, came off the bench.

Even in victory, the Fire had to come from behind and showed a less than stellar performance with plenty on the line. Playoff seeding is incredibly tight heading into the final weekend, with the Fire having the chance to finish anywhere from second to fifth.

The Fire led in the third minute but trailed 10 minutes later, something that irked coach Veljko Paunovic.

“After the third minute we actually thought that the game for us was over and that’s unacceptable,” Paunovic said. “We cannot ever again have that performance or that mindset.”

Paunovic did praise the team’s character to find a way to turn it on and get the win.

“We are kind of happy to see that we are capable to react that way, to go basically from zero to 10 in just 15 minutes of the halftime break,” Paunovic said.

However, the need to turn it on like that is not a good sign for the playoffs when the opponents will be better than Philadelphia. One of the reasons for the improved play was the introduction of David Accam into the match after halftime. Accam was fouled in the box to earn the penalty kick that Nemanja Nikolic scored to tie the match.

[RELATED: With MLS scoring title nearly locked up, Nemanja Nikolic views it as 'work of one year’]

The Ghanaian has been nursing a hip injury for weeks and it has limited his playing time. This was the third straight match he has not started. When asked if not starting Accam was about his injury or resting him for the playoffs, Paunovic said, “It’s a little bit of everything.”

“I felt good today on the field,” Accam said. “I haven’t played in a long time so today I felt good and I think I’m ready to help this team.”

Accam described the injury as a nerve injury. He said the plan was for him to play 30 minutes, but Paunovic told him to get ready earlier because the team might need him.

“Sometimes I just wake up and I don’t know,” Accam said. “It’s really painful. Other times it feels so good. The last two or three weeks it feels really, really painful.”

This was also the first match Michael de Leeuw, the team’s leader in assists, missed due to his torn ACL suffered last match against New York City FC. Juninho missed his fifth straight match with a knee injury and his status for the playoffs remains unclear. Bastian Schweinsteiger is nursing a thigh injury and while he is expected to be available for the postseason, his fitness will be in question. Joao Meira went down early in Sunday’s match and finished the match, but was walking with a significant limp in the locker room after the game.

This all adds up to plenty question marks heading into the playoffs for the Fire. Who knows what the team will look like when the postseason rolls around.

With MLS scoring title nearly locked up, Nemanja Nikolic views it as 'work of one year'

With MLS scoring title nearly locked up, Nemanja Nikolic views it as 'work of one year'

Nemanja Nikolic has won scoring titles before in his career so his place at the top of the Major League Soccer goal-scoring list is not an unfamiliar place for him.

Nikolic, who joined the Fire this offseason, won the scoring title three times in the Hungarian league and did so in his last full season in the Polish Ekstraklasa before leaving for the Fire. By scoring a hat trick in Sunday’s 3-2 win against Philadelphia, Nikolic put himself in prime position to win the Golden Boot in his first year in MLS.

Nikolic scored in the third minute, finishing off a long ball from Brandon Vincent that gave him a breakaway, buried a penalty kick in the second half to tie the match and scored the game-winner in the 78th minute on an impressive first-touch finish. Nikolic now has 24 goals on the season. The nearest competitors in the scoring title race, Diego Valeri (21) and David Villa (20), would need a hat trick of their own just to get back in the race with one weekend left in the regular season.

“I think it’s important for every striker to win this,” Nikolic said of the scoring title. “This is our job. We need to do this every week. The season is really long so up and down situations you will have always. The important thing is how you will believe in these things and how you will come out from the bad momentum and also how you will train when you have good momentum.”

Nikolic’s third goal was huge beyond getting Nikolic his first hat trick of the season. The win moved the Fire up to third in the Eastern Conference standings while a draw would have dropped the team to fifth. A fifth-place finish means going on the road in the first-round so securing at least a top four spot is a big difference.

When he scored the third goal and again when he was subbed out of the match in added time, the crowd chanted “NIKO!”

“I feel really good, not just about hat trick, about the victory,” Nikolic said. “It was really important for us. The first half was not that great, but I think we showed attitude. We showed personality, how we need to play in second half. We were not afraid.”


During the week leading up to the Philadelphia match, Nikolic talked up how many quality strikers were deserving of winning the scoring title. When asked if any of his teammates had joked about the scoring race with him, Nikolic responded very seriously about what it means.

"I think it’s no joke," he said. "I think it’s work of one year."

Vincent assisted on both of Nikolic’s goals from open play.

“Unbelievable accomplishment for him,” Vincent said of Nikolic likely winning the Golden Boot. “He deserves every bit of it. He’s been clinical on the chances he’s gotten. He probably could have had even more goals, honestly. He’s a striker and he deserves that for sure.”