For Cary-Grove graduate Drew Conner, his release from the Chicago Fire last year was “a tough pill to swallow.”
Conner, 25, grew up in Cary rooting for the Fire and played for the Chicago Fire Academy growing up. He played parts of three seasons with the MLS team between 2016 and 2018. The Fire declined the option on Conner’s contract in November, making him a free agent.
“Look, this is the nature of professional sports. My contract was up and basically they weren’t willing to extend my offer,” Conner said. “It was a decision I was heartbroken by. I was confused over the situation because of all the ways that I contributed over the years and the connection with the fans, growing up here.”
His free agency presented an opportunity to travel and to do some soul searching.
He spent two months with SC Znojmo, a team in the Czech Republic. When the season ended in May, Conner backpacked across Europe for about 21/2 months. Then he traveled across the continent for tryouts with teams in Germany, Finland and Austria. He had contract offers, but none was exactly what he was looking for.
Then the Indy Eleven reached out.
The United Soccer League team based out of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis announced the signing of Conner in a news release Tuesday.
“We are excited to add such a dynamic, versatile player to our roster at this stage of the season,” Indy Eleven coach Martin Rennie said in a statement released by the team. “He will be a very valuable asset to our team on the field and in our community.”
Conner spoke to the Northwest Herald from Detroit, where the team was to play an exhibition game Tuesday.
“I’m really excited, it’s been a long journey after my last season with the Fire,” the midfielder said. “[Indianapolis is] close to home, only a three-hour drive. That’s something I’m happy about. My parents and people close to me can come see games, something that’s important to me.”
Indy Eleven ranks fourth in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference standings. The USL Championship is one tier below the MLS in the ranks of U.S. professional soccer leagues. The team is drawing the second-highest attendance in the league with more than 10,000 fans a game.
Conner graduated from C-G in 2012. As a senior, he was the Northwest Herald Boys Soccer Player of the Year, and he earned Gatorade Illinois Boys Soccer Player of the Year honors. He played college soccer at Wisconsin.
In his three season with the Fire, he made 32 appearances, with 13 starts, and had one assist. He also spent time on loan with St. Louis FC of the USL in 2016.
Conner said his travels around Europe were about finding a job, but they were about more than that, too.
“It was also a little bit more of learning about myself and being alone and figuring out what it is exactly I was after,” Conner said.
He flew to Chicago on Saturday and drove to Indianapolis on Monday for a physical before the team made the signing official Tuesday.
“It’s really exciting in Indy right now,” Conner said. “I’m just excited to be in with the team and contribute as much as I can.”