So I'm sitting at my desk at work around 4pm this past Friday trying to figure out what my plans for the evening are. Then out of nowhere Illinois Piasa General Manager Matt Williams makes my plans for me with one short e-mail:
"FYI - Mike Banner, Chicago Fire, will wear #16 for Piasa tonight vs. the Vortex."
I immediately forwarded the e-mail on to my editor and did some hasty research in order to be somewhat prepared. I then looked at the team's website and social media pages, but wasn't able to find any further information on the announcement being made public. So I got in touch with the Piasa's Media Relations Director Steve Rusnack and asked him why the team wasn't promoting the heck out of it.
Rusnack's answer was simple: what typically happens in a situation like this when a player is released from a top league and are looking to stay in form, they may decide to play for a local indoor team while figuring out where their professional career is headed next.
What can happen though is that the player may request a non-publicity clause in their contract with the indoor club. This might sound odd, but it's understandable that someone who was a member of the Chicago Fire a week ago may not be too eager to brag about now playing for their local indoor club. They likely won't be there for a long period of time, but as Banner would say after the game, "Indoor is always a good opportunity to get fitness in terms of sprints up and down the field."
Born in Washington D.C., Banner's St. Louis roots come from attending college at nearby Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville after transferring from Georgetown at the end of his freshman year. After a very successful collegiate career with the Cougars from 2003 to 2006, the Fire selected him 34th overall in the 2007 MLS SuperDraft.
Banner played five seasons in total for the Men in Red, compiling 54 total matches and scoring three times and tallying three assists in MLS action. In 2011, he did not play in any first-team matches due to injuries.
Last week, the club announced that Banner's contract had not been renewed. "It was an ongoing conversation between my agent and the front office in Chicago," he said. "We thought at one point that it would go through, and it obviously didn't, so both sides will move on."
It seems like money and roster spots were the main sticking points. At 27 years old, Banner is sort of in the awkward "tweener" position of not being a rookie and not being a true veteran. He was no longer playing with a rookie contract, so the appeal of signing a rookie or keeping a younger player likely outweighed his experience. Plus, with more pressing needs in defense and up top, the need for another talented midfielder wasn't as high of a priority.
And Banner is undoubtedly still talented. In the Piasa's match-up with the visiting Ohio Vortex, he was clearly one of the most exciting players on the field. His footwork and ball control was excellent. The indoor game presented its challenges though. "It's completely different than outdoor, the game is a lot faster, everything is 100 miles an hour," he said. "Obviously in the outdoor, the game is more slowed down and possession-oriented."
Overall, he did well, but didn't dominate. In the first half, he nearly gave up a goal when he lost possession in midfield, which was likely the result of having less room to operate than he would in the outdoor game. The Piasa won 12-3 and Banner ended up with one assist.
After the game, Banner was upbeat. He was happy about having the opportunity to play in the downstate Illinois area again. "I have a bunch of friends here in St. Louis and Edwardsville and I love coming back because the soccer is good here."
Banner would not go into specifics about what his future plans are, but didn't rule out a return to Chicago. "Maybe in the future I'll be back there," he said. "I'll work hard and who knows, I'll be back in MLS soon."
Banner also thanked the Chicago Fire fans and the Section 8 supporters in particular: "They always treated me well, they always gave me great support when I got in the game," he said. "Throughout my whole career there the whole five years, they were awesome."
Jones also makes Southern Illinois return
Banner was not the only former SIU-Edwardsville player to play for the Piasa after being let go by an MLS team. Former New York Red Bulls defender Mike Jones also helped to provide the Piasa with a boost as they attempt to make the PASL-Pro playoffs.
Jones was initially selected by Sporting Kansas City in the 2011 Supplemental Draft. After being waived in May, New York picked up the St. Peters, Missouri left-footer to provide depth on their backline.
Fire fans may remember Jones as one of the unfortunate souls who was essentially sacrificed by Red Bulls coach Hans Backe during the 2011 U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals. Backe famously did not make the trip, sending assistant coach Mike Petke to lead a team consisting of little more than captain Medhi Ballouchy, the aging defender Chris Albright, Wayne Rooney's less talented brother John, snakebit goalie Bouna Coundoul and a handful of reserves including Jones. They only suited up 14 players in total.
Jones was also in good spirits as he talked about his future career plans after the Piasa game. He says he is looking at a number of options, including one in Copenhagen, Denmark. "I'm still young, so I have some chances and some opportunities, so we'll see how that pans out," he said.
As for the Red Bulls fans who supported him?
"Keep supporting, no matter where I end up."