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.”

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.

Fire notes: Bastian Schweinsteiger yet to play in preseason

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USA TODAY

Fire notes: Bastian Schweinsteiger yet to play in preseason

The Fire's preseason is two games old, but not much action has taken place in those games.

The opener was a 2-0 win against the University of South Florida, the Fire's host during this phase of the preseason, and Thursday's match against the Philadelphia Union was a scoreless draw. It's still early in the preseason and it has looked like it, but there have been some notable things.

For one, Bastian Schweinsteiger hasn't played yet. According to a team source the plan was for the German to sit out these two games. The 33-year-old did show some signs of a relative lack of fitness during scrimmages at the newly-build Toyota Park Dome (he had his hands firmly on his knees after one session despite still showing quality on the ball). The season opener is still over a month away so it's not a red flag.

Newly added winger Aleksandar Katai hasn't joined the team yet, but is expected to do so for the next phase of the preseason. Thursday is the team's travel day for a return to Chicago. The team has the weekend off before returning to Florida, this time in Bradenton, on Sunday.

Katai last played on Oct. 24 so he may need some time to get up to full speed, but so does the rest of the team at this time of year. How he is used will be worth watching. Will he be a straight replacement for David Accam (at least in terms of position) or will he be a more versatile option? Luis Solignac, Daniel Johnson and rookie Jon Bakero have played in the attacking midfield spots with the starting group in both preseason matches.

Defensively, it appears Christian Dean may have the inside track on the starting spot next to Johan Kappelhof. Dean has started next to Kappelhof in both preseason matches and did so in scrimmages in Bridgeview in the first week of the preseason. If that continues, Dean is likely the starter. If coach Veljko Paunovic wants to see someone else play with Kappelhof later in the preseason, there is still an open competition. Dean and rookie Grant Lillard are both left-footed center backs vying for the left center back spot.

Rookie Mo Adams started against USF and was in the second half lineup against Philadelphia. Against the Union, Adams dropped deep to begin attacks as the Fire tried to build out of the back. That trait is not common in young MLS players and is a good sign for Adams' prospects. He won't beat out Schweinsteiger or McCarty, but he could be a valuable bench piece this season, especially with Juninho gone from last year's team, and more in the future.

The recently traded Accam started for Philadelphia and played into the second half, but wasn't a major factor. To be fair, in a scoreless preseason draw few players were major factors. Of the 11 players the Fire started the second half with, Accam only played in a match with one of them (Jonathan Campbell) during his time with the team. The Fire's second half lineup was largely comprised of rookies, trialists and even an academy player.

Finally, Dax McCarty is always good for a good line. After the Philadelphia match, McCarty shared an idea he has for the league.