Two suburban players make Chicago Fire debut

 
 
Updated 3/14/2017 10:14 PM
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  • Djordje Mihailovic, an 18-year-old from Lemont, gets ready to play in his first MLS game for the Chicago Fire on Saturday against Real Salt Lake.

    Djordje Mihailovic, an 18-year-old from Lemont, gets ready to play in his first MLS game for the Chicago Fire on Saturday against Real Salt Lake. Photo courtesy of the Chicago Fire

  • Drew Conner, a Cary native, made his Chicago Fire debut this season.

    Drew Conner, a Cary native, made his Chicago Fire debut this season. Photo courtesy of the Chicago Fire

  • Djordje Mihailovic, an 18-year-old from Lemont, plays in his first MLS game for the Chicago Fire on Saturday against Real Salt Lake.

    Djordje Mihailovic, an 18-year-old from Lemont, plays in his first MLS game for the Chicago Fire on Saturday against Real Salt Lake. Photo courtesy of the Chicago Fire

  • Drew Conner, right, a Cary native, made his Chicago Fire debut this season.

    Drew Conner, right, a Cary native, made his Chicago Fire debut this season. Photo courtesy of the Chicago Fire

Two games into the season, two homegrown players have made their Chicago Fire debuts.

Drew Conner of Cary came on in second-half extra time of the Fire's 1-1 season opener at Columbus, entering when John Goossens was injured.

"It was cool," said Conner, 23, a University of Wisconsin graduate who signed with the Fire last year but did not play. "It was cool to get on the field, especially the first game of the season and get that out of the way. Obviously you never want to see a guy like John Goossens go down with an injury that late in the game. That was kind of upsetting to see."

Lemont's Djordje Mihailovic entered Saturday's 2-0 victory against Real Salt Lake in second-half extra time.

"It felt amazing," the 18-year-old Mihailovic said. "I've been praying for that moment my whole life and everything just came together that one moment. All my hard work and all the days of training. Sometimes two-a-day trainings. Hours a day. It was exciting.

"Before the game it was very hard to keep it all together, but then when (coach Veljko Paunovic) called me in I had to grow up a little bit and just perform."

Conner and Mihailovic, both midfielders, came up through the Chicago Fire Academy and got a chance to train with the first team before signing their pro contracts.

"I've been with the first team since summer of 2015, so I'm used to this level," said Mihailovic. "It helped me so much and I think I'm getting along with the squad really well."

Brandt Bronico, a 2017 Fire third-round draft pick out of North Carolina-Charlotte, also saw his first action against Real Salt Lake, coming on in the 85th minute.

Gone for now:

Homegrown players Collin Fernandez (Downers Grove) and Joey Calistri (Deerfield), plus 2017 fourth-round draft pick Matej Dekovic left the Fire to go on loan with USL side Tulsa Roughnecks. They can be recalled at any time.

Gone for good:

Defenders Chad Barson and Ryan Taylor are no longer on trial with the Fire.

"Ultimately we felt we needed to keep searching," Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez said, adding it wasn't about money. "We never got to a discussion on contract. It was more our evaluation of where we thought they would fit in, and ultimately we thought if we waited and kept searching we could do better."

Anchor of the defense:

Center back Johan Kappelhof earned MLS team of the week recognition for his role in Saturday's 2-0 victory. Kappelhof not only had an assist, he also led a back line that kept the ball away from goalkeeper Jorge Bava much of the game.

"I felt OK about the game," said Kappelhof, a native of Amsterdam. "The second half we didn't do that good, that's why we were under pressure. We still have a lot of things to do."

It helps that this is Kappelhof's second season in Chicago, and that he's back in the center after finishing last year at right back.

"Yeah, I'm glad to be back in the center," he said. "It's my favorite position. But if the coach needs me on the right I will play on the right. But center back is my favorite position."

Injury report:

Midfielder Matt Polster is still a couple weeks out from being able to return from a preseason knee injury. He did some light jogging around the practice field at the PrivateBank Fire Pitch during training Tuesday with forward David Arshakyan, who missed Saturday's win with a thigh strain.

Arshakyan might be available for Saturday's match at expansion club Atlanta United.

The Fire remains optimistic midfielder John Goossens can return at the end of the season following ankle surgery for an injury suffered in the season opener at Columbus. Goossens will remain in Chicago for his rehab and be around the team as much as possible, coach Veljko Paunovic said.

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