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.
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.”