After spending the 2019 season out on loan, Elliot Collier knew he’d find his way back to the Chicago Fire, even if it didn’t work out quite like he expected.
“That was always the goal. Go to Memphis for the year, and then come back here,” Collier said.
But, when the New Zealand international got back to Chicago after a successful loan spell with USL Championship expansion side Memphis 901 FC, things were very different than when he left. Veljko Paunović was out as Fire head coach, and Collier was faced with a huge challenge—go to camp as a trialist, quickly impress new coach Raphael Wicky and earn a new contract, or go find another job.
“The new coaching staff comes in and I get told, yeah, you’re invited to preseason, but you have to prove yourself to the new coaches,” Collier told Hot Time in Old Town. “I think even if I had a contract coming into this year, I would’ve had to prove myself to the new coaches anyway. Not having that contract makes you push a little harder. You don’t waste any moments out of the field.”
Collier blew away Wicky, according to a source, and he earned that new deal. A little more than an hour after his contract was announced by the Fire on February 6, Collier scored his first goal of the preseason against Nashville SC in Tampa, Fla. He followed that up with another goal off a Brandt Bronico cross in the Fire’s most recent tune up match against Orange County SC in California, making him the team’s joint-top scorer of the preseason.
“Signing the contract was amazing, and going out and scoring, you can’t beat that,” he said.
Collier is entering his third season as a pro. After he was drafted by the Fire 49th overall in the 2018 MLS SuperDraft out of Loyola University, Collier struggled at times, before going out on loan to Indy Eleven for the remainder of his rookie season.
At the beginning of last season, the Fire sent him out on loan yet again, this time to Memphis 901.
“It was a really good experience for me,” Collier said. “Before I left to go on loan, people here said this was to get you experience, confidence, score some goals and grow as a player and improve. And, I used that time last year to do all of those things.”
It was a hugely successful 2019 for Collier. He scored seven times in 29 appearances for Memphis, including the club’s first ever hat trick in a July match against Hartford Athletic. The loan spell got Collier noticed by his national team, and he earned his first two caps for the New Zealand All Whites in matches against Ireland and Lithuania last November.
Collier’s mom is English, and his dad is from New Zealand—”Half Kiwi, half English” is how he describes himself. But, even if the more famous Three Lions national team had recruited him, Collier said he wouldn’t have taken the call. Playing for New Zealand was always his dream—and it’s a huge motivator.
“I’m fighting for playing time,” Collier said. “I’m still fighting to make appearances for my national team, so that’s always on my mind, putting my best self out there and performing, playing at a high level here will obviously get me selected to those national team camps, so that’s always on my mind.”
Tragedy hits home
Collier’s 2019 season may have ended with a dream call up to the national team, but it started with a nightmare.
On March 15, 2019, a gunman walked into two different mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand and opened fire, killing more than 50 people, and injuring nearly 50 more.
“That was a really tough time for all of New Zealand, because that kind of stuff doesn’t happen in New Zealand,” Collier said. “We don’t have automatic guns, we don’t have handguns, we don’t have any of that. The only thing that we do have are hunting rifles and shotguns.
“To hear that there was a mass shooting, that just kind of shook me down to my core. I have family in Christchurch, so I was immediately just thinking about my family, oh, God, are they okay?”
Collier’s family was fine. But the day after the terrorist attack, he learned a good friend and former teammate, Atta Elayyan, was among the dead. Elayyan was the goalkeeper on New Zealand’s national futsal team.
“I actually found out the morning of a game. I found out that morning, and then had to play that night,” he said.
That night, Collier wore a black armband to honor his friend, and in the 78th minute, Collier scored the equalizer in a 1-1 draw with Loudoun United.
It was the first goal in Memphis 901 FC history. After he scored, Collier kissed the armband.
“In the celebration I was able to dedicate that goal to Atta, so that was pretty special,” Collier said.
From New Zealand to Chicago
After spending last season in Memphis, Collier feels he’s a much better player than two years ago when he jumped from Loyola University straight to MLS. The reason is simple: experience.
“I think I’ve taken these last couple years to really grow, gain confidence at the professional level, and just gain experience,” Collier said. “Coming in with zero professional games versus thirty something, forty is a big difference.”
But, how did a guy from Hamilton, New Zealand, some 8,300 miles from Chicago, end up here, anyway? It’s quite the story, actually.
“When I was in New Zealand, I went to an academy in Wellington called the Olé Football Academy,” Collier said. “At the time it was run by Americans, and they had connections to universities over here. The whole goal for that academy was to get the best young talents in New Zealand, and give them a path to go pro. And a lot of the time that path was through the university system.
“Coming from anywhere it’s hard to go straight pro. But coming from New Zealand, there’s only one professional team (Wellington Phoenix), and they play in the Australian League. So, it’s very, very tough to get that exposure.”
He landed in Chicago for his freshman year at Loyola, and it was, well, a shock.
“I was just in New Zealand summer, and it was beautiful, and I arrive the day after a polar vortex in Chicago. I was like, what have I got myself into? I don’t think I’m gonna be able to survive here. This is cold like I’ve never experienced before. But, I got over that pretty quickly,” he joked.
Collier ended up staying and studying exercise science. “It was the only thing I could relate to soccer,” he said while laughing. He was a four-time All-Missouri Valley Conference selection, scoring 17 goals in his career with the Ramblers. He was the first player in Loyola history to be selected in the MLS SuperDraft.
Come to America. Get noticed. Get a pro contract. His plan worked. If it didn’t, Collier doesn’t know what he would have done. He may have a degree from Loyola, but he has no idea what he’d do if he had to find a real job.
“Oh, man, that is really tough. I honestly have no idea. I can’t imagine myself doing anything other than what I’m doing right now.”
Looking to 2020 and beyond
There’s a common misconception among some young players and fans that making it as a professional soccer player is the hard part. Go pro, and the job is done. In reality, keeping your spot as a professional might be even harder than making it in the first place.
“As a professional athlete, you’re earning your job every day,” Collier said. “You got to show up to every practice, every session, every day ready to show your best self, and ready to improve. If you’re not improving every day, and growing as a player, there’s gonna be someone else coming in to take that spot who is gonna be improving every day.”
Collier said Wicky is a coach that can help him reach his full potential.
“I love the style he wants us to play,” Collier said. “He wants us to play with no fear and express ourselves, but also at the same time sticking with his fundamentals that we as a team all have to follow.
“Every game’s gonna be full of mistakes and trying things. Playing under a coach where you’re never afraid to try these things and make mistakes is an amazing thing. If you show up to practice everyday and you’re scared to try things, or you’re scared to make mistakes, then how are you ever gonna get better?”
If his form this preseason is any indication, Collier might get his first crack at a full season in Chicago. After spending at least part of the last couple seasons away from his adopted city, Collier is finally back right where he wants to be.
“It’s my home away from home,” he said. “With the new coaching staff, it’s something to be excited for, and I’m going to take the opportunity and leap at it.”