Grant Lillard wants to go far in soccer.
He’s perfectly happy, though, with where he is now.
Lillard, a 2014 Hinsdale Central graduate, is in his second year playing for the Chicago Fire.
“It’s been an amazing experience to be able to play for the club that I grew up watching,” Lillard said. “The goal was to be a Chicago Fire soccer player, so to actually get there is just one step.
“Now is the fun part, where I get to compete every day and I get to do what I love and just try to help the team win as many games as possible.”
That last part is harder than it looks. Lillard, 23, enjoyed a successful four-year career at Indiana, where he was a first team all-American his senior year, when he captained the Hoosiers to the national title game.
A 6-foot-4, 195-pound defender who played four years of club soccer for the Fire Academy while in high school, Lillard was signed by the Fire on Jan. 10, 2018 and played eight games, including six starts, early in his rookie season.
But injuries curtailed his development and the Fire missed the playoffs. That proved frustrating.
“The MLS is a different level,” Lillard said. “It’s just way more competitive.
“You’re getting acclimated to the pace of play, how quickly you have to move with the ball, how quickly guys around you are moving and just your understanding of the game. You have to be able to think quicker.”
Unable to get playing time early this season, Lillard was loaned to the Lansing Ignite of the USL in May. It turned out to be a blessing as he played four games and got back into match shape.
“It was good,” Lillard said. “I had some injuries that set me back and I hadn’t been able to get back out on the field for a while, so the club was looking for me to continue to develop as a player and offered me an opportunity to go over to Lansing and get some games in.
“I was itching to get back on the field.”
Lillard did just that, making his season debut for the Fire on July 6. He has seen action in three games, going the full 90 minutes in a 2-0 loss to Cruz Azul in the Leagues Cup on July 23 at Seat Geek Stadium.
“I was ready for my opportunity,” Lillard said. “We didn’t win but I thought I had a good performance and I’m very happy to be back here.”
Fire captain Dax McCarty is pleased to see Lillard crack the lineup.
“One thing that’s been really positive to see with him is I’ve clearly seen a progression from him to when he came in from college to where he is now,” McCarty said. “There’s a clear difference in the player that he was when he first started and what he is now.
“Early in his career I would have been nervous putting him on the field, quite frankly. Now to see the progress that he’s made, I’m more than comfortable that every time he steps on the field for us, whether that’s at left back or at center back, I think he knows that he is going to do a good job and the team has confidence he’ll be able to step in and perform at a high level.”
That’s easier said than done for a young player, but being around world-class players is an education. In addition to McCarty, 32, who has played for the U.S. national team, the Fire roster includes Bastian Schweinsteiger, who led Germany to the 2014 World Cup title, 2017 MLS Golden Boot winner Nemanja Nikolic and former Serbian national team player Aleksandar Katai.
“They do a good job working with you,” Lillard said. “[Schweinsteiger] is a World Cup winner and you come to understand how he looks at the game.
“He’s two steps ahead of everybody. He gives you little talking points after games,l ike, ‘hey, remember this play when you try to double down in the corner, make sure you’re helping from the other shoulder so he doesn’t turn and go to goal.’
“It’s little details like that where you can pick their mind. They’re all trying to help you because they want you to be better so they can win, too.”
The Fire (5-10-9, 24 points) have not won much and are in danger of missing the playoffs again. McCarty and others have worked with Lillard to get through the tough times.
“It’s about progressing every day in training and taking all the mistakes and negatives that might happen in training or in games and learning from those and turning those into positives,” McCarty said. “The good thing about Grant is he’s open to learning.
“He’s open to seeing where he can improve and then going out on the training field and trying to improve.”
That process is working.
“Grant has really come into his own these last couple of months and hopefully he can continue to adjust,” McCarty said. “The last few games have shown that he’s more than capable at this level.
“He’s made good decisions in the back. Obviously his size and aerial ability is a very big weapon for us, not only on attacking set pieces but also defensively as well.”
Lillard, whose younger brother, Daniel, played on Hinsdale Central’s 2014 state championship team, lived in Hinsdale during his rookie year and now resides in Chicago.
He has a finance degree from Indiana but doesn’t plan on using it any time soon.
“At the end of the day, I’m a soccer player,” Lillard said. “That’s what I do. I want to take this as far as I can.”