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.”

Fire's protected list for expansion draft hints at possible moves

juninho-1210.jpg
USA TODAY

Fire's protected list for expansion draft hints at possible moves

The MLS offseason doesn't take long to get in gear.

The Fire traded Arturo Alvarez earlier on Sunday, the same day which the list of protected players was to be announced ahead of Tuesday's expansion draft for Los Angeles FC.

LAFC will take five players in the expansion draft, which is set for 1 p.m. on Tuesday. A team can only lose one player. Each team can protect 11 players and homegrown players aren't eligible for selection. For the Fire that means Drew Conner and Djordje Mihailovic can't be taken.

The Fire protected David Accam, Jonathan Campbell, Johan Kappelhof, Dax McCarty, Nemanja Nikolic, Juninho, Matt Polster, Richard Sanchez, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Luis Solignac and Brandon Vincent.

While Sanchez and Schweinsteiger are out of contract, the Fire have said they are negotiating with both players. Protecting Juninho is a bit of a surprise because it implies that the Fire have some intention of keeping him for next year, or at least keeping his rights to be traded.

The Fire left David Arshakyan, Jorge Bava, Brandt Bronico, Stefan Cleveland, Jorge Corrales, Michael de Leeuw, Christian Dean, Daniel Johnson and Matt Lampson unprotected. De Leeuw would be a worthwhile pickup for LA if it thinks he is worth it after his ACL tear suffered late in the season.

With only five players being selected it's fairly likely no Fire players are taken by LAFC, but it's arguable that de Leeuw will end up being one of the best five players available. The 31-year-old tied for the team lead with eight assists and scored three goals.

Fire open offseason by sending Arturo Alvarez home

arturo-1210.jpg
USA TODAY

Fire open offseason by sending Arturo Alvarez home

And they're off.

MLS Cup finished just last night with Toronto completing arguably the best season in league history, but the offseason doesn't wait long to get going. The Fire took advantage of Sunday's short trade window before Los Angeles FC's expansion draft takes place on Tuesday by trading Arturo Alvarez to the Houston Dynamo.

Alvarez, a Houston native, gets to go home and could finish his career with the Dynamo. The Fire received a second-round pick in the 2019 draft.

Alvarez, 32, made 55 regular season MLS appearances with the Fire in two years. He had five goals and nine assists in 2016, leading the team in assists. This past season he saw his minutes get nearly cut in half although he did regain a regular spot in the team towards the end of the season and finished with three goals and two assists.

“Arturo had perhaps his two best years wearing our red and we appreciate all that he gave to our club,” Fire general manager Nelson Rodríguez said in the team's statement. “We saw this as a chance to allow him to return home while opening up his minutes for some other players.”

The question is which players Rodriguez is referring to. Alvarez played primarily at right midfield, frequently cutting inside with his dangerous left foot. Two players come to mind as possible fill-ins already on the roster: Daniel Johnson and Brandt Bronico.

Johnson was the Fire's first-round pick in the 2017 draft and showed flashes of ability, but dealt with injuries through much of the season and made eight substitute appearances totaling 125 minutes. He is a wide player, but was the opposite of Alvarez, typically playing on the left and cutting in on his right foot.

Bronico was the 2017 third-round pick and made only four sub appearances adding up to 53 minutes played. With such limited action it was difficult to gauge whether he could be a wide midfielder or should be played centrally. Either way, with Alvarez gone and Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic out for the first few months of 2018 with ACL tears, both Johnson and Bronico will have opportunities the way the roster is currently constructed.

More news is due later today with the expansion draft set for Tuesday. The Fire will announce the 11 players they are protecting. Homegrown players (Drew Conner and Mihailovic) won't need to be protected. The Fire have 17 others players that will be eligible for the expansion draft.