It hasn't been quite the start to the 2018 season that Chicago Fire rookie defender Grant Lillard anticipated, but Tuesday may have marked a personal turning point for the 22-year-old.
After more than a month spent dealing with a left knee injury, Lillard returned to full training at Toyota Park ahead of the club’s visit from the Portland Timbers on Saturday (5 p.m. CT, MLS LIVE | TICKETS). Lillard had been sidelined following a 60-minute shift in the club’s preseason meeting with the Montreal Impact on Feb. 14.
Tuesday’s training session was a day shy of the six-week mark since that Valentine's Day friendly, and marked a welcome return to full team activities for the Indiana product.
“It’s great to be out there again playing,” Lillard said. “My knee feels 100 percent. I don’t have any second thoughts when I’m out there. No hesitations. That’s obviously really nice, being healthy again. Now I’m just working on getting sharp, getting fit, just getting back into the flow of things.”
With his signing as a Homegrown product in early January, Lillard capped what had been a whirlwind wrap to a distinguished collegiate career. As a senior, he’d captained Indiana to an appearance in the 2017 NCAA College Cup final, before being named the unanimous Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year as well a First-Team All-American. Entering his first pro season, being relegated to the sideline was an unfamiliar feeling.
“I’ve never been out that long with an injury, so just being back and being able to train and being able to interact more with the guys, that’s what the fun part is,” he said. “It’s really exciting to just be back out there playing again.”
Lillard’s return is a welcome one for the Fire defensive unit, which has been collectively bit by the injury bug at the outset of the cub's 2018 campaign. Fellow defenders Jonathan Campbell (facial fracture) and Matt Polster (knee) are on their own respective roads to recovery, while Rafael Ramos (thigh) remains a recent return from the injured list. The 23-year-old was cleared just in time to make his Fire debut in the club's 2-1 defeat in Minnesota on March 17.
Lillard's immediate challenge is now to rediscover his sharpness and re-integrate himself into the squad.
“I’m just putting in the hard work, doing little extra things, but just focusing on having my mind right for every single training session (and) getting the little details down again,” he said. “I missed some time, and with that you have to put in a little work to catch up to everyone else. It’s just nice to be back playing again, so it’s fun.”
Lillard is expected to be available for selection to head coach Veljko Paunovic’s side that will take on the Timbers this weekend. He'll look to work his way back into a centerback rotation that has so far featured Johan Kappelhof, Christian Dean, and Kevin Ellis through two matches this season.
While he’s got his eye on making his professional debut, helping the Fire pick up points in any way possible remains the priority.
“We’ve had a tough start to the year, but that doesn’t mean we can’t turn it around,” he said. “It’s still early. From a personal standpoint, I would love to get my debut in the next few weeks, but I’m obviously here to do whatever the team needs and help the team get points anyway I can.”