In the opening months of his professional soccer career, Chris Ritter put his head down and got to work.
The Chicago Fire’s first-year holding midfielder didn’t begin the season on the squad’s 18-man roster, but he did the right things — switching the field effectively in practice and doing exercises like 100-yard sprints after practice to keep his conditioning up — and started earning a spot in the squad’s gameday roster in April.
Ritter didn’t see any first-team action in April or May. But then, a day and a half before the Fire hosted the Los Angeles Galaxy on June 1, the Winnetka native received some unexpected news: He was going to start against the Galaxy.
“It was really something I’ll never forget,” said Ritter, who helped New Trier win boys soccer state titles in 2006 and 2008. “I just found myself in that line, going out for a World Cup walkout, standing next to Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane — guys I’ve seen on TV for years. It was a really cool experience.”
Ritter started at center midfield for the Fire that day and his task, defensively, was to clog the middle of the field in front of the Fire’s defenders — the space where Keane and Donovan like to operate.
Ritter and his teammates were successful in slowing Los Angeles’ attack. The Fire held the Galaxy to just one shot on goal, but disaster struck for Ritter in the match’s 74th minute.
Ritter collected the ball just outside of his own 18-yard box and sent a weak pass to his left. Los Angeles right back Robbie Rogers darted into the passing lane, intercepted the ball and then rifled a rolling cross into the box.
Donovan finished Rogers’ cross to tie the game at 1-1, which was the match’s final score.
“I kind of felt like I blew the game,” Ritter said. “Walking off the field, I didn’t really know how people were going to be feeling in the locker room. I walked through the tunnel, down to the locker room a little on egg shells, not really knowing what to expect.
“But right when I got into the locker room, everyone was extremely positive and told me I did a good job and I played a good game and to keep my head up. That was kind of the best thing to hear, and really looking back, made my transition from that L.A. game — my first MLS start — to the later games I played in … easier.”
Chris Ritter and Harry Shipp show off their official invitations to the 2014@chipotlemexicangrill#MLS Homegrown Game! #cf97
Ritter has made six appearances in MLS matches, including five starts, as of Tuesday. He’s played well over the last two months, as evidenced by his selection to the MLS Homegrown Game, which will take place on Monday in Portland, Oregon. The game is part of the lead-up to Wednesday’s All-Star Game.
Ritter has impressed Jeff Engelhardt, who has recapped many of the Fire’s games for SB Nation’s hottimeinoldtown.com this season.
“Each and every game it seems Ritter has improved and that’s all we can ask of a young, developing player,” Engelhardt wrote after the Fire tied Sporting Kansas City 1-1 on July 6. “… Overall he showed composure in a tough environment and a glimpse of what he could become moving forward.”
Fire assistant coach C.J. Brown has watched Ritter grow over the course of the season. He said he’s liked what he’s seen from Ritter in practice and games.
“He’s always had a great work rate and he challenges and he works hard in training,” Brown said. “He’s willing to put the work in and I think now, it’s just gaining confidence that he belongs to this team. … I think he’s slowly building to being a solid professional player.”