Dan Santaromita

Fire announce signing of homegrown defender Grant Lillard


Fire announce signing of homegrown defender Grant Lillard

The first player addition of the Fire’s offseason was the least kept secret.

The Fire made official the signing of homegrown defender Grant Lillard on Wednesday. Lillard joins the Fire after a four-year career at Indiana with plenty of accolades.

The 6-foot-4 centerback signed a two-year contract with the Fire holding two more club options beyond that. Lillard leaves Indiana after being a first team All-Big Ten selection three years, including winning Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year this fall as a senior year. This season he was named a first team All-American by Top Drawer Soccer, College Soccer News and United Soccer Coaches.

Had Lillard been eligible for the draft, he would have been one of the first players taken. Instead, the Fire get to bring him on board and, as a homegrown player, he will not count against the cap.

“It’s a dream come true for me, signing my first professional contract,” Lillard said in an interview released by the team. “It’s an unbelievable honor to be able to sign with my hometown club, the Chicago Fire. Moving here my sophomore year of high school as soon as I came here I knew this is where I wanted to be. This is where I set my goals to play and it’s just an unbelievable experience to be able to sit here and have it all come to reality.”

Lillard moved to Hinsdale from Arizona and enrolled at Hinsdale Central. He played with the Fire’s academy at the Under-16 and U-18 levels.

He could have gone pro early. The Fire had discussions with Lillard last offseason, but he elected to finish his collegiate career. He wrapped up his final season at Indiana with a place in the College Cup final, which was an overtime loss to the winner of now three straight national titles, Stanford. Lillard made the all-tournament team at the College Cup.

“The last few months has been a lot,” he said. “Just dealing with the College Cup run we made at Indiana. I continued to develop as a player and as a person off the field. There was a great platform at Indiana. Every single year I was working on something else and I got better. This is kind of just the first step. This is where the fun starts and I’m just excited to get to work and see how far we can take this thing.”

Lillard has a chance to play right away. The Fire lost Joao Meira, a regular starting centerback last season, and so far Lillard is the only newcomer to the position. Johan Kappelhof will remain a fixture at the position, but who plays alongside him will likely be decided in preseason (and throughout the year).

Jonathan Campbell will head into his third year as a pro, but didn’t see as much time in 2017 after leading the Fire in minutes as a rookie in 2016. Christian Dean is another option, but he is coming off a foot injury and has struggled to stay healthy in his career. Even if Lillard doesn’t win a starting job, the lack of numbers at the position should allow him to get on the field on a semi-regular basis if he stays healthy.

The Fire now have 19 players under contract. With three goalkeepers and seven defenders (eight if you want to count Drew Conner as a backup option at right back) under contract, those positions may not see much change. The midfield and attack will need some additions, even if Bastian Schweinsteiger returns.

Fire defenders Matt Polster, Brandon Vincent called up to national team


Fire defenders Matt Polster, Brandon Vincent called up to national team

When the U.S. men missed the World Cup, it had a massive effect on many aspects of the game in this country, but two Fire players felt that in a more specific way.

Matt Polster and Brandon Vincent had both received call-ups to the January camp in 2016 and had breakout years of sorts in 2017. Both even had an outside shot of going to the World Cup, that is if the team had qualified.

Instead, both will have to put their sights on the 2022 edition and working their way into the team before then. Polster and Vincent both got called in to this year's version of the January camp, the annual, mostly domestic-based training camp during the MLS offseason.

Vincent received his first cap in the camp in 2016 in a friendly against Canada. Polster was in the camp, but didn't play. Polster was brought in to train with the Under-23 Olympic qualifying team, which also failed to qualify.

Former Fire coach Dave Sarachan will be the coach for the camp. Sarachan is a holdover from Bruce Arena's coaching staff and is in charge while the federation waits to name a replacement. With no competitive games on the schedule in 2018, there is no rush to hire a coach and waiting for the World Cup to end will give the U.S. more candidates to choose from.

After the qualifying failure, Polster said he held out hopes of forcing his way into the World Cup roster.

“The ultimate goal was that they’d qualify and hopefully I could make January camp and then I could turn some heads,” he said in October. “That was my thought process and I really wanted to give it a go. Hopefully I can do what I can to maybe help and be a part of it one day.”

Polster, 24, had shown positive signs in his first two seasons, but lacked consistency while playing in central midfield. This season he moved to right back, a position he played with the Olympic qualifying team, and was a revelation at the position for the Fire. His athletic ability and stamina made him a good fit for the position, although his positioning and crossing ability need improvement.

Vincent, 23, improved upon a rough rookie season to become a key cog at left back for the Fire. Both players benefit from playing at a position that the national team is not deep at, but that is especially true for Vincent, a naturally left-footed player. Left back has been a difficult position to fill for the national team for decades.

Players will report to the camp in California on Jan. 10. A friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina is scheduled for Jan. 28 at the StubHub Center, home of the LA Galaxy. As a result, both players are expected to miss the first portion of the Fire's preseason.

Quenneville sees Blackhawks showing a 'little bit more consistency'

Quenneville sees Blackhawks showing a 'little bit more consistency'

Teams sitting outside the playoffs at this point of the season aren't exactly known for consistency.

That's why Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said that word when talking about the team's recent play. The Blackhawks haven't won back-to-back games since a five-game winning streak in mid-December that led into the recent six-game road trip, but Quenneville had a more positive spin after Sunday's 4-1 win against Edmonton.

The Blackhawks have a 3-1-1 record in the past five games and Quenneville said he even saw positives from the only loss during that stretch, a 5-4 loss to Vegas on Friday.

"I thought we played with a real purpose, but a good response after a funny and a tough way to lose the other day," Quenneville said. "When we look back at the Rangers and these games, two out of three, a lot of good things and even that Vegas game had some good things so it's a little bit more consistency in our game."

Anton Forsberg got the start in goal after Jeff Glass was between the pipes the previous four games. Forsberg stopped 32 of 33 shots. Quenneville said it was a "big game for him."

Nick Schmaltz, Alex DeBrincat, Brandon Saad and Jordan Oesterle scored in the win for the Blackhawks.

Watch the video above to see more from Quenneville after Sunday's win.