More than a week before the draft, the Chicago Fire secured the equivalent of a top five draft pick when they announced the acquisition of Indiana University’s Grant Lillard on Wednesday.
Not only did the Fire bring in one of college soccer’s best players over the last four years, they potentially landed a starting center back for the 2018 season. Of the 11 Homegrown signings announced at this point of the offseason, Lillard's addition is one of the most significant, as he’s as close to MLS-ready as college players come.
Obviously, the Fire have high expectations. General manager Nelson Rodriguez noted in the announcement of his signing that the defender “has a chance to be a dominant player.”
Watching him on the field, it¹s easy to see why. Over the past four years, the Hinsdale, Illinois native emerged as one of the best players in college soccer. A hulking central defender, Lillard stands at 6-foot-4, 195 pounds, and the stingy back line he led in Bloomington might've made him a candidate to be selected as the No. 1 overall pick, if not for his Homegrown ties. Lillard and future MLS draft pick Tomas Hilliard-Arce were far and away the two best center backs in college soccer last fall.
A dominant force in the air, IU’s defensive numbers during the 2017 season were indicative of Lillard’s strengths. Playing in all 25 games, he led the team to 18 shutouts, as the Hoosiers conceded just seven goals on the season on their way to a 1-0 national championship defeat to Stanford. He reads the game well, and can snuff out dangerous moments before they get near the penalty area.
Already possessing the size and talent to cope with the bigger, physical attackers in MLS, Lillard faces the usual slew of challenges central defenders must address when jumping from college to the pros. At Indiana, Lillard and his team's back line generally sat deeper, so depending on how he’s deployed with the Fire, he¹s likely to be a bit more exposed. That leaves him the chance to prove he can track runners on the turn and cope with more the experienced, savvy attackers he’ll face in the MLS ranks. If he’s playing higher up the field, his recovery speed will be tested more often than it was in college.
That¹s not to say Lillard is unable to cope. He matched up against 2018 Generation adidas signee Francis Atuahene, one of the fastest players in college soccer, three times. Maryland’s Gordon Wild, another member of the Generation adidas class, was scoreless against Lillard the past two seasons.
It’ll be the challenge of trying to track explosive players such as Vancouver’s Alphonso Davies or experienced veterans like New York City’s David Villa that becomes the decisive factor. Becoming consistent enough against the best forwards in MLS will dictate how far Lillard can progress in his rookie season and beyond.
Barring another addition or two, Lillard enters the 2018 preseason with every chance of opening up the new campaign as one of the Fire’s starters at the back. The 2017 Big Ten Defender of the Year will have to win a spot next to Johan Kappelhof, with Christian Dean and Jonathan Campbell also in the picture. Each of those players brings his unique strengths to the field, but don¹t be surprised if Lillard gets his shot sooner rather than later.