Fire

Drew Conner back to 'grinding' with Fire after St. Louis loan

Drew Conner back to 'grinding' with Fire after St. Louis loan

Homegrown rookie Drew Conner hasn’t played a competitive game for the Chicago Fire yet, but he has been able to gain professional experience and playing time.

Conner began the season on loan with Saint Louis FC, the Fire’s affiliate in the United Soccer League. He racked up 12 appearances, totaling 462 minutes, before being recalled to the Fire in mid-June.

Conner came up during a time when the Fire were thin in midfield due to injuries. With Saint Louis, he played both defensive and attacking midfield. He has stayed with the Fire even now that the team has been healthier. Coach Veljko Paunovic said the Fire were impressed with Conner’s progression.

“We believe in him,” Paunovic said in June after Conner was recalled. “We are watching every single game he played with Saint Louis. We know what is going on there because we have very good communication with the club and he is a project and this is a part of the project.”

Conner came off the bench six times and didn’t play a full 90 minutes in any match. Conner was on the Fire bench for the first game after he was recalled, at Philadelphia on June 22. He did not play and has not made a matchday lineup since.

The 22-year-old’s struggles to get minutes with the Fire are why the team sent him out on loan in the first place.

“I didn’t look at it necessarily as a negative,” Conner said. “It’s part of my development as a pro. I’m going down there and just training everyday and actually getting minutes, whereas it would have been a lot tougher in the beginning of the season for me (with the Fire). Now I’m back and fighting and grinding everyday.”

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Conner said the biggest adjustment for him coming out of college at Wisconsin was the speed of the game, especially mentally. The other big change was playing in front of big crowds, which is something Conner clearly enjoys from the way he talks about it.

Saint Louis FC is averaging around 5,000 fans per game and some of the away crowds, Conner mentioned Sacramento, impressed the Cary native.

“I remember in preseason my first game dressing was against the Portland Timbers, who has one of the craziest crowds,” Conner said. “They were selling out their preseason games. I was looking around like ‘Yo, this is crazy.’ So going down to St. Louis and being in front of their supporters’ group, the St. Louligans, and just playing in front of live drums and people screaming and stuff kind of prepared me to step up to this level.”

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The other thing that has stood out to Conner so far is the schedule. College soccer only plays in the fall while the MLS regular season schedule runs from March through the end of October. The longer season and extra travel takes its toll, but the cramped schedule of college was challenging in a different way.

“I just think they do a really good job of managing your body here,” Conner said. “[In college] you would play a game on Friday and then you would train on Saturday and then you would play Sunday. Sometimes that Saturday session wasn’t easy, which kind of made a lot of the players mad sometimes. That was just kind of the college mentality. You go out and grind every single day, whereas here you get to manage your body. You’re not as tired all the time.”

With the Fire roster as healthy as it has been all season, playing time with the Fire may not be easy to come by for Conner. For now he is just trying to learn, whether that be with the Fire or back with Saint Louis FC.

Chicago Fire permanently sign midfielder Aleksandar Katai

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USA TODAY

Chicago Fire permanently sign midfielder Aleksandar Katai

The Fire have secured the transfer of midfielder Aleksandar Katai from Deportivo Alavés of the Spanish La Liga, the team announced Wednesday afternoon.

This season’s breakout playmaker has been signed with Chicago through 2019, with a 2020 club option. Before the transfer, Katai was on loan from Alavés, which was set to expire after July.

The Serbian player has emerged as one of the most important pieces of the Fire’s offense this season. Since joining the club on Feb. 6, Katai has scored eight goals in 18 league matches, tying forward Nemanja Nikolić for the most on the team. Katai also has three assists in 2018.

The 27-year-old’s biggest game of the year came against New York City FC last month when he scored two goals to lead the Fire to 3-2 victory. His production this season in the MLS has been much more significant than it was in 23 matches with Alavés, where Katai only tallied three goals and four assists.

His transfer fee is unknown but, according to Sam Stejskal of MLSsoccer.com, he will be a “Targeted Allocation Money player” for the rest of this season and will not be a Designated Player until 2019. Whatever the official price was, acquiring Katai for a lengthier amount of time seemed like a must.

Throughout this season, the Fire were rumored to be in talks with legendary Spanish striker Fernando Torres. On Tuesday, he signed with Sagan Tosu, a Japanese club. The Fire signed Katai the next day, showing that the team was possibly waiting for Torres to leave the market.

Chicago will face the Philadelphia Union Wednesday night at Toyota Park, where Katai will look to continue his impressive season.

Chicago Fire defender Johan Kappelhof involved in car crash on Thursday morning

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USA TODAY

Chicago Fire defender Johan Kappelhof involved in car crash on Thursday morning

Chicago Fire defender Johan Kappelhof was involved in a car accident on his way to practice Thursday morning that sent him to the hospital with minor injuries.

According to authorities and the Secretary of State’s Office, a box truck crashed into the Dutch player’s 2013 Volkswagen and another vehicle in the 5900 block of South Harlem. Kappelhof’s vehicle rolled over and two people fled from the scene.

The driver ran on foot and the passenger moved into the driver’s seat before driving the truck onto the Stevenson Expressway after the crash, officials said. After the damaged vehicle broke down, police say the same passenger tried to jump into the Illinois and Michigan Canal. Both were taken into custody.

Team officials said Kappelhof was treated and released from the hospital without indicators of a concussion. The 27-year-old was reportedly seen at Toyota Park after the crash and did not have any serious injuries. The other driver who was hit by the box truck was also treated, police said.

This season in league play with the Fire, Kappelhof has three assists in 16 games. The international product was a 2017 MLS All-Star and the Defensive Player of the Year for the Fire last season. He was signed in 2016 and has made one MLS Cup Playoffs appearance.