The 2017 season has mostly been a kind one to the younger contingent of the Chicago Fire roster so far, a trend that held up on Saturday afternoon.
Homegrown midfielder Drew Conner made his third appearance for the club -- the lengthiest one of his young career -- entering the match in the 55th minute for defender Jonathan Campbellin a 1-0 win over Columbus Crew SC.
“It was nice to get in and get some time,” he said. “My thoughts just going on the field were just trying to break stuff up defensively as much as I could and when I get it, just move the ball and help the team build a rhythm.”
Conner’s second half injection came as head coach Veljko Paunovic looked add to his midfield presence early in the second half with Columbus searching for an equalizer. Despite slotting in alongside Krakus Man of the Match Dax McCarty in a deeper role centrally, Conner’s attacking play nearly helped the Fire double their lead on multiple occasions.
“After my first one or two passes, I settled into the game and just tried helping support guys and stay open with the ball,” he said.
Conner’s marauding run directly through the center of the defense (something Fire fans have seen before) in the 75th minute left a pair of Crew defenders grasping for air before he was ultimately fouled outside the Columbus 18. It took a quick reaction from goalkeeper Zack Steffen to keep Bastian Schweinsteiger’s ensuing direct free kick attempt out of the back of the net.
Four minutes later, Conner found himself in a dangerous area with the ball at his feet yet again. Picking up possession at the top of the Columbus box, the Cary, Ill. native tip-toed through three Crew SC defenders and played an open cross past Steffen. Unfortunately, no one was there to meet it, and a nice individual moment of skill was reflected on the stat sheet only as an incomplete pass.
“I’ve always prided myself on being versatile,” Conner said. “I think when I got the ball those two times I just saw a lot of space ahead of me and guys running on the wing, so I just took a couple big touches and baited a few guys. I don’t consider it necessarily my strong suit, but the opportunity was there to dribble so I just did it.”
While the team’s second goal never came, Conner’s efforts and those of rookie Daniel Johnson --- himself a second-half substitution -- in preserving a hard-fought win over the Eastern Conference leaders were not lost on Paunovic after the match.
“It’s very important to know that you can rely on the young players in a tough game like this, that when they come out off the bench that they help the team like they did today,” Paunovic said. “It’s very important to know that young players are growing, getting more mature, and getting more experience in a game like this.”
Conner and the Fire wrap up a three-game home stand next Saturday, April 15, against the New England Revolution. Kickoff set for 4 pm CT on CSN Chicago (TICKETS).