For his first start as a professional soccer player, Chicago Fire defender Grant Lillard went up against Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the Los Angeles Galaxy on Saturday afternoon.
Ibrahimovic, one of the world's most recognizable athletes, made his first Major League Soccer start also, scoring the only goal in a 1-0 victory over the Fire. Still, years from now Lillard probably will treasure the memory more than the 36-year-old Swedish international.
"It was an unbelievable experience to finally get the first nod," said Lillard, 22, a Hinsdale Central High School graduate who joined the Fire first team as an off-season homegrown signing out of Indiana University. "It shows the coach has confidence in me to play me for that amount of time. But I felt as the game went on I grew into it, became more comfortable."
Lillard said he had a number of family members and friends at Toyota Park. Afterward they had a few questions for the rookie, such as, how was it to play against Ibrahimovic?
"That was the most common question, I would say, for sure, obviously," Lillard said. "But everyone was excited for me, everyone was really supportive. It was tough, a tough challenge, but I enjoyed it and I'm ready for the next one."
Defense seeing improvement:
After struggling the first couple of games of the season, the Fire has cut back on its goals allowed. It shut out Columbus, then followed by allowing just one goal to the Galaxy.
"We've committed more numbers to the back line, and so that's helped with limiting the goals allowed," said central defender Jonathan Campbell, who like Lillard was injured in the preseason and made his first start of the season against Los Angeles. "But I also think it's had a little bit of an effect where not as many chances created (offensively). So I think there's a little give and take and maybe finding that balance is where we'll go from here."
The improved numbers might mean Fire coach Veljko Paunovic opts to move Bastian Schweinsteiger back to the midfield instead of playing him on the back line as a sweeper for this Saturday's game at the New York Red Bulls (2:30 p.m., Univision Deportes).
Schweinsteiger arrived at the Toyota Park training field wearing a down parka, a knit hat and a face covering. He jokingly wished the media a "merry Christmas" and delivered the news that the temperatures, in the low 40s, were about 10 degrees Fahrenheit below normal.
Speaking of Schweinsteiger:
Section 8 Chicago, the Fire's independent supporters association, is collaborating with Goose Island Brewery on a beer to honor Schweinsteiger. The news release describes "Keller 31" -- Schweinsteiger wears No. 31 with the Fire -- by saying, "this unfiltered lager is a crisp, clean, no-nonsense beer reminiscent of its namesake's style of play." It will be released in August around the time the Fire plays Bayern Munich in Germany in Schweinsteiger's testimonial match.