Coming off of his first professional minutes as a second half substitute against Columbus Crew SC on April 7, Chicago Fire Homegrown rookie defender Grant Lillard’s next personal milestone was a different challenge entirely.
“I was obviously very excited to get my first start,” Lillard said, referencing his inclusion in head coach Veljko Paunovic’s starting 11 prior to Saturday’s match against LA. “Going up against the Galaxy, they have a lot of talent in the team. Going up against Zlatan, he was one of my favorite players growing up so it was just an unbelievable experience.”
Lillard, whose introduction to MLS was delayed by a preseason knee injury, got the nod as part of Paunovic’s three-man backline designed to limit LA’s opportunities, specifically those directed at world-renowned forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The former Indiana University standout stepped into the starting lineup in central defense alongside Bastian Schweinsteiger -- deployed in a sweeper role -- and Jonathan Campbell, who made his first appearance of 2018 upon returning from a facial injury suffered in the preseason.
Stepping onto the field to defend a talent like Ibrahimovic in one’s first professional start was a challenge not lost on the 22-year-old.
“It was really fun," Lillard said. "He’s one of the greatest players to ever play. I just wanted to always know where he was. I didn’t want him to have the ball facing goal ever, which is difficult. He finds really dangerous spots, and we just tried as a backline to minimize his opportunities.”
Lillard defended admirably, recording 20 defensive actions (defined as tackles won, clearances, blocks, interceptions and recoveries) over the course of his 90-minute shift, the second-highest total on the team behind Dax McCarty’s 22.
Ultimately, though, Zlatan broke through. The 36-year-old got his head to an Ashley Cole cross in first half stoppage time, delivering the game’s only goal.
“We can work to improve in scenarios like that,” Lillard said. “Playing against someone with that much talent, you have to be aware of where he is at all times. You have to be aware of what he can do, and you’ve just got to try to minimize it as a group. There’s not one player that can take him away. It’s just how you organize and try to solve the problem before it happens with him.”
A learning experience to say the least, Lillard sees Saturday’s match as a building block towards bigger things.
“Obviously, (it’s) very disappointing that we didn’t get the result that we wanted, but we showed some signs of improvement and we’re going to continue to work to build on those,” Lillard said. “We’ve got a lot of things we can work on, so I’m excited to keep grinding. The group’s grinding. We’re working hard, and we’ll keep figuring it out and we’ll keep getting better.”
Another top targetman awaits Lillard and the Fire when they return to action this Saturday (April 21) when they travel to face Bradley Wright-Phillips and the New York Red Bulls in Harrison, N.J. (2:30 p.m. CT, Univision).