Hinsdale native Grant Lillard getting feet wet with Fire

Chicago Fire

Hinsdale native Grant Lillard getting feet wet with Fire

The Fire have a few rookies in position to be contributors to the team early on in 2018, but one of them has a head start on his fellow newcomers to the team.

Grant Lillard signed a homegrown contract with the team on Jan. 10, but as an academy product the start of preseason training this week wasn’t his first exposure to the first team. Lillard got to train with the Fire last summer in between his junior and senior seasons at Indiana.

“It definitely helps being a little acquainted with everyone coming over this summer,” Lillard said. “The Fire were really generous to give me an opportunity to come in and play for a month. I got to get to know a few guys through that. There are a lot of new faces and it’s nice playing with some old guys and then seeing some new guys, too. But it definitely helps you feel more acclimated and it’s easier to just play my own game and focus on what I need to do.”

Lillard stands out among the group, but that’s mostly because of his size. At 6-foot-4, Lillard is an imposing figure. He is also a left-footed player, which could help him win the left center back spot next to Johan Kappelhof on the Fire’s back line.

As the roster currently stands, he will be up against Jonathan Campbell and Christian Dean for that spot. Lillard wouldn’t admit to any competition or anything beyond getting settled in the professional game.

“It’s been a lot of fun just getting to know the guys, getting used to how everyone is playing, seeing some movements,” Lillard said. “Just all the basic stuff, kind of getting my feet on the ground and seeing which way is what, but it’s been fun. I’ve been looking forward to this moment for a long time and just to be able to get out and play with the guys has been a lot of fun.”

Lillard, a Hinsdale native who comes to the Fire after a four-year career at Indiana in which he was an All-American, said the coaching staff hasn’t spoken to him about anything specific yet. The goal is just to get him to play his game and show he belongs.

“Obviously the level is higher, but that’s the fun part, coming and playing with all the guys that the Fire have on this team,” he said. “It’s more competitive, the pace is faster. It’s the next level of soccer, professional football and it’s fun.”

Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon


Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon

As far as notorious players in MLS with a history of scoring big goals, Alan Gordon is one of the first names on that list.

The Fire signed the 36-year-old forward on Friday, continuing to add depth to a roster that appeared paper thin throughout the preseason. Gordon, who had been on trial with the Fire for part of the preseason and even after the season opener, signed a one-year deal.

Gordon adds plenty of experience from being in the league since 2004 and having scored 55 goals with five different teams. For the past few years he has been used primarily as a substitute, but has still maintained his reputation for scoring goals late in games.

At 6-foot-3 he brings plenty of size and strength to the team and is one of the best players on headers in the league. Last season the Fire failed to score directly off a set piece, which was both due to consistently poor service from corner kicks and a lack of players adept at finishing them off. Gordon should give the Fire a late-game option in that area.

Elliot Collier had impressed the Fire enough to earn a contract as a third-round pick and an international player and even came off the bench in the opening loss to Sporting Kansas City, but it appears the team wanted more experience at forward with Gordon.

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

If you were looking for entertainment, goals, plot twists and storylines, the Fire’s season opener had all of those boxes checked.

What it didn’t have was even a point for the hosts against Sporting Kansas City on Saturday at Toyota Park.

The first half showed a Fire team which very much looked like the “incomplete” roster that general manager Nelson Rodriguez referenced just before the season. KC led 2-0 and the Fire failed to get a shot on target, showing a lack of chance creation and any semblance of a dangerous attack.

The second half showed a Fire attack which was capable of turning the heat up on the visitors, but also a defense which couldn’t defend. Sporting's 4-3 win revealed that there’s plenty of work to do for the Fire to resemble the team that finished third in the MLS regular season last year.

“Especially in the first half we saw that we weren’t ready to compete with a team that had an advantage that they had one competition game before us,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “That was the main difference in the first half, but the adjustment in the second half was tremendous. I think just showing that we can score three goals that quickly and create even more opportunities was a positive.”

However, Paunovic wasn’t about to let his team off the hook by only speaking about positives.

“What we learned today is that we have to get better on every side of the game and in every aspect of the game,” he said. “We are not there. We didn’t have a good game. I think overall a lot of innocent and naive mistakes.”

After trailing 2-0 at halftime, the Fire revved things up in the final 25 minutes and Bastian Schweinsteiger keyed the first goal with a slick assist to newcomer Aleksandar Katai. Nemanja Nikolic showed the scoring instincts and finishing ability that won him the league scoring title a year ago by scoring two more goals to give the Fire the lead in the 82nd minute.

Then it all fell apart, with two KC goals within four minutes of Nikolic giving the Fire the lead. Dax McCarty, your thoughts?

“You’re 10 minutes away from the headline and the storyline being Chicago Fire show great character, make a fantastic comeback, win the game 3-2 and yet here we are sitting here, somehow losing that game, which is insane,” McCarty said. “It’s totally insane.”

The defensive struggles, which Paunovic pointed out mirrored last year’s early playoff exit in a 4-0 loss, will need to get resolved internally. Johan Kappelhof, Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster all started on a competent defense last year and McCarty and Schweinsteiger helped play damage control in midfield. This isn’t what the weakness of the team was supposed to be yet after one game, it’s all anyone on the team could talk about.

“We gave up four goals,” Kappelhof said. “That’s not good. Simple.”

While more additions may be coming in-season, as Rodriguez has mentioned, and injuries haven’t allowed the Fire to start 2018 fresh, this game wasn’t a good sign for what’s to come for the 2018 Fire. A lack of any offensive creation in the first half and a lack of defensive concentration, as Paunovic put it, throughout the game showed a team that has plenty of pock-marks currently.

“We don’t know how to defend, quite frankly," McCarty said. "From back to front, front to back, the defending aspect of our game was pretty poor. A lot of things to learn."

The good news is even if the Fire take some time to correct the errors from Saturday’s season opener, MLS is a forgiving league. A majority of the league, 12 of 23 teams, makes the playoffs and league-wide parity means teams can go through slumps and still end in good standing. A year ago, the Fire lost six games out of seven and still had the third best record in the league. It’s OK if the team takes time to iron out some organizational issues defensively, just don’t take too long.