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.