It might have happened later than anyone would have wanted, but Grant Lillard finally made his MLS debut for the Chicago Fire.
The Indiana University product, who was signed to a homegrown deal in the offseason, would’ve been a candidate to start alongside Kappelhoff on opening day. Lillard got plenty of time in preseason, and was impressive throughout. However, a knee injury picked up against the Montreal Impact derailed that possibility. The injury not only ruled Lillard out of the first game against Sporting KC, but forced him to miss the next two contests as well. He returned to full training ahead of the Portland game, and was able to make the matchday 18 for the first time in his career, but did not get an opportunity off the bench.
Against Columbus, Lillard got to make long awaited first appearance for the club. The Fire were up one at the hour mark, and were desperately holding on to the lead. Kevin Ellis, who had been surprisingly phenomenal up to that point, picked up a knock, and had to be substituted out. Paunovic, without another centerback option on the bench, threw Lillard onto the field. It was a real trial by fire (pun somewhat intended) for the youngster, who had to stop a potent Crew attack who were throwing everyone forward. In the end, he played his part in helping the Fire secure a clean sheet, and the gaining the crucial three points. His height became invaluable, as when the Crew became increasingly desperate, they resorted to whipping in crosses whenever they could. Lillard was a towering presence in the box, and helped clear away any long ball into the area. It was a promising debut, and is the perfect starting point for Lillard to build upon.
Now, many are wondering whether Lillard can get his first start against the Galaxy on Saturday. The problem is that the Fire are not sure what kind of starting lineup LA will roll out at Toyota Park. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has come off the bench in his first two games for the club, due to a lack of match fitness. He has been in America for three weeks now, and he might be fit enough to start. There is also the question on the health of Mexican national team member Gio Dos Santos. He didn’t play last weekend against SKC, but returned to training earlier in the week. He has not been the biggest success since coming to the league, but his quality is undoubted, and will start if able to. For now, it seems that Paunovic will rely on experience against a dangerous Galaxy attack, which could see Kevin Ellis get a third start at centerback this season.
Even if it does not come against the Galaxy, it won’t be long until Lillard gets an extensive run out with the team. He was a star at the college level, and his contract signing was a big deal. On paper, a partnership of him and Kappelhoff seems like it could work very well, as their contrasting styles would compliment each other. Lillard would serve as the big man, clearing headers and flying into tackles, while the smaller, more technical Kappelhoff can focus on man marking and passing out the back. The future seems bright for Grant Lillard in Chicago,