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.

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away


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


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.