Drew Conner might have only gotten a half hour to make his mark on Saturday against the Portland Timbers, but he certainly made the most of the opportunity given to him.
The start of the Chicago Fire’s 2018 season has been a frustrating for Conner. He didn’t make much of a splash in the first two games, only making a brief cameo in the dying minutes against Minnesota United. Considering how much time playing time he saw the year before, he must have been disappointed in the lack of chances provided. Conner was often the backup to Matt Polster last season, but now saw himself behind both Rafael Ramos and Kevin Ellis on the depth chart.
Against Portland, Conner finally got an extended run out and proved to be a much needed breath of fresh air. The homegrown came on for Tony Tchani, who had been particular poor on the day. His defensive ability was no longer needed, as the Fire were still down a goal and were chasing the game. Conner made an immediate impact, providing a much needed spark of energy running up and down the pitch. His youthful exuberance began to rub off on his teammates, who were lackluster up to that point. Conner might not have played a part in the goal directly but was a key factor for the team’s improved performance late on.
One of the highlights of the game was completely manufactured by Conner. Fernando Adi, known for his size and strength, was attempting to hold the ball up the field for Portland. Conner came running in to dispossess Adi, who tried to shield the ball away. Conner saw this coming, dropping the shoulder, and taking the ball away as Adi fell to the floor. The homegrown immediately turned up field and kickstarted a Fire counterattack. Portland gave him space to run and Conner gladly took it, carrying the ball almost fifty yards up the pitch. Once he got near the edge of the penalty area, Conner looked up whipped it a dangerous cross into the heart of the Timbers penalty area. He picked out Alan Gordon, whose header forced a great save out of the Portland goalkeeper.
Conner will be a likely candidate to start against Columbis. It has become clear that Tchani is not good enough to be a starter in Chicago— his careless turnover lead to Portland's opening goal, and he didn’t do much to make up for it. With Michael de Leeuw and Djordie Mihailovic still out through injury, Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic doesn’t have many options available. Conner is more than capable to take on the role. He is good enough on the ball, and understands how to maintain possession. His dribbling is solid and he has a knack for forcing opposing defenses to open up and react to his movement. The Crew play a 4-2-3-1 that allows them to control the midfield. If Chicago can’t contest Columbus’ hold on the center of the park and fight for possession, it could be a long night at Toyota Park. Paunovic has to get the midfield setup right, and it seems the best combination includes Conner.
Drew Conner just turned 24 in February and is part of a promising crop of young Americans at the club. Chicago has been garnered a reputation in recent years for not being an ideal place to develop young players, which may have been a contributing factor in Cam Lindley’s decision not to sign with the Men In Red this offseason. If the Fire want to shake off that reputation, they must allow players like Conner the chance to go out onto the field and prove themselves. As Conner proved against Portland, they are more than ready.