Preps Talk

Grazzini still without a new contract

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Grazzini still without a new contract

All season long the Fire has downplayed the possibility of attacking midfielder Sebastian Grazzini leaving the club after his contract expires in July. Grazzini's departure, however, seemed a distinct possibility after Tuesday's training session at Toyota Park.

Grazzini made it clear that he and the club have an unresolved contract issue, and the possibility of getting it resolved seemed cloudy after Brazilian midfielder Alex went through his first training session in Bridgeview.

Alex, like many Brazilian players, prefers to go by only his first name in the soccer world. His full name is Alex Monteiro de Lima. Like Grazzini, he's also an attacking central midfielder but also says he's comfortable on the left side.

The Fire took a good look at Alex in preseason training, when he was under contract with FC Wohlen of Switzerland's second division. He signed with the Fire on April 26 but couldn't report until Wohlen's season was over, and he can't get into a match for the Fire until June 27 when the transfer window opens. He could make his Fire debut on June 29 at Sporting Kansas City.

Grazzini could still be on the roster then, too, but could be done shortly thereafter. He signed a one-year contract on July 13, 2011. So far his Argentina-based agent and the Fire have not reached agreement on a new deal.

The Fire brought in Grazzini in hopes of averting a second-straight disastrous season, and Grazzini did his part to bring respectability back to the franchise. He had five goals and four assists in 11 games, helping the Fire to a 7-2-1 finish that salvaged a.500 season (9-9-16).

Though more talented players have come on board this season the Fire is only a mediocre 5-5-3 heading into the resumption of the MLS season in Sunday's home match against the New York Red Bulls. The Fire lost its last three games prior to a two-week break, and Grazzini didn't play in two of them. He was on the field for Tuesday's training session while playing an uncomfortable waiting game with his contract.

"If the financing there, a good contract offer, I'm willing to stay,'' said Grazzini, speaking through the same translator that Alex used moments later, "but they've taken a little longer to decide.''

He is not happy about that.

"It bothers me because I have a family and am 20 days out of a contract,'' he said. "I don't want to leave on a bad note on anything, especially because I've done well on the pitch. I don't understand why it's taken so long. Thankfully I have offers from Argentina, but I like it here.''

Following MLS policy, the Fire doesn't disclose contract information but the MLS players union reports Grazzini as the lowest-paid Fire starter. According to the players group he was paid 48,000 in 2011 and has a base salary of 50,400 for 2012. There are players on the roster earning more than twice that.

Coach Frank Klopas might have been able to explain the contract delay, but he was missing from the session and said to be on a scouting trip at an undisclosed location. He spoke highly of Alex during the preseason and felt that his participation during three weeks of February sessions in Florida would help familiarize Alex with his future teammates.

"I know most of the players,'' said Alex. "Now I'm working on my fitness. I haven't been doing anything for two weeks, but by the 27th I should be ready again.''

Alex had offers from Dubai and Switzerland and his decision to choose the Fire came after discussions with his wife and other family members. He said his contract is for six months, which means just the rest of this season. According to sources, though, his loan agreement includes an option to extend the deal for three years. More financial details weren't disclosed.

There will be some pros and cons if the Fire decides on a midseason change at the critical attacking midfield spot. If Grazzini goes the Fire will lose experience. Grazzini has played for teams in Argentina, Spain, Belgium, Venezuela and Italy. He joined the Fire after a stint with the Argentine club All Boys.

If the Fire goes exclusively with Alex, the youth movement will get a boost. Alex is only 23, while Grazzini is 31. But Alex has only played professionally in Switzerland. He had two goals in 18 games for FC Gossau in the Swiss Challenge League to start his pro career and had seven goals in 48 matches for the last two seasons for FC Wohlen. He will wear No. 71 for the Fire.

Klopas wasn't the only absentee from the Fire coaching staff on Tuesday. Leo Percovich guided the reserve team in a match at Real Salt Lake. Arne Friedrich (hamstring), Chris Rolfe (ankle) and Dominic Oduro (hamstring) shook off their recent ailments and went through the whole training session, which was directed by assistant coach Mike Matkovich.

The postseason begins in the latest Preps Power Rankings

The postseason begins in the latest Preps Power Rankings

The IHSA playoffs are finally here for all of boys basketball as regionals begin this week in the Class 3A and 4A. Since Class 2A only has one team in the top 25, defending champion Orr, most of the focus on the Power Rankings falls on teams in the Class 3A and 4A fields. 

1. Simeon (25-3, 9-0) (1) -- The heavy favorites in Class 4A, the Wolverines start the playoffs against Hubbard or Reavis before potentially facing Sandburg or Crete-Monee for a regional title.

2. Orr (22-4, 9-0) (2) -- The Spartans won a regional in Class 2A as they move on to play Uplift in the sectional semifinals on Wednesday. The Titans might be the toughest team Orr faces in its quest to repeat as 2A champions. 

3. Curie (23-4, 8-1) (3) -- The No. 1 seed in the Riverside-Brookfield Sectional of Class 4A, the Condors could face York or Riverside-Brookfield for a regional title as that could be a tough matchup. 

4. Whitney Young (22-7, 7-2) (4) -- The defending Class 4A champions are the No. 2 seed in the Riverside-Brookfield Sectional as they could face St. Joseph or St. Ignatius for a regional title next week. 

5. Morgan Park (18-9, 7-2) (5) -- The Mustangs will try to repeat in Class 3A as they might face Vocational or Perspectives/Leadership for a regional title. Now that Ayo Dosunmu is healthy and back, Morgan Park should be the favorites once again.

6. Fenwick (19-7, 8-0) (6) -- Catholic League champion Fenwick is up in Class 4A this year as they're a No. 4 seed in a loaded Riverside-Brookfield Sectional. The Friars might have a showdown with Proviso East for a regional title if both teams win earlier in the week. 

7. Evanston (21-5, 8-2) (8) -- The Loaded Maine East Sectional will be tough but Evanston is the No. 1 seed. The Wildkits could have a tough regional title game ahead of them as Maine West and Notre Dame are both capable of making it a close game.

8. Oak Park-River Forest (22-5, 12-0) (9) -- Knocking off Hinsdale South for the West Suburban crown, the Huskies have a lot of positive momentum entering the Class 4A playoffs. OPRF is the No. 3 seed in the Riverside-Brookfield Sectional as they could play Lincoln Park for a regional title.

9. Benet (23-4, 8-1) (10) -- With a 14-game winning streak entering the playoffs, the Redwings are red hot. Benet is the No. 2 seed in the Glenbard East Sectional in Class 4A as they could match up with Naperville Central or Glenbard West for a regional title. 

10. West Aurora (21-4, 10-0) (11) -- Winners of 13 straight, West Aurora is the No. 2 seed in the Romeoville Sectional. The Blackhawks could face Andrew or Plainfield North for a regional title at Plainfield South. 

11. Marist (24-4, 7-2) (12) -- An impressive 24-win season has Marist as the No. 2 seed in the Thornton Sectional as they host a Class 4A regional. The RedHawks might play Thornwood or Bloom to win that regional on Friday night. 

12. Niles North (24-4, 6-4) (13) -- The Vikings took down New Trier to pick up a great win right before the loaded Maine East Sectional in Class 4A. Niles North, a No. 3 seed, might have to face ESCC champion St. Viator for a regional title, which would be one of the most-anticipated matchups in Class 4A. 

13. New Trier (22-5, 8-2) (7) -- Dropping two games during the week, New Trier is limping into the postseason as the No. 2 seed in the Maine East Sectional. It won't get any easier for the Trevians as they might face Mid-Suburban champion Prospect for a regional title.

14. Naperville North (24-2, 15-1) (15) -- The top seed in the Glenbard East Sectional, Naperville North hosts its own regional in Class 4A. The Huskies might play Geneva or Downers North for a regional title. 

15. DePaul Prep (21-6, 5-3) (16) -- The No. 1 seed in the North Chicago Sectional, DePaul Prep hosts its own regional in Class 3A. The Rams could face Foreman or Sullivan for a regional title as DePaul Prep has a winnable sectional. 

16. Loyola (22-6, 5-3) (17) -- Loyola is the No. 4 seed in the Maine East Sectional. The Ramblers could have a tough regional final against host and No. 5 seed Maine South as that would make for a great matchup.

17. Marian Catholic (20-5, 5-4) (14) -- A No. 1 seed in the Pontiac Sectional of Class 3A, the Spartans will be one of the teams to watch in that field. Marian Catholic could potentially take on Thornridge or Rich Central for a regional title during the week. 

18. Hillcrest (21-5, 13-0) (18) -- The Hawks are a No. 2 seed in the Pontiac Sectional in Class 3A as they try to make another deep run in March. Hillcrest could face Rich East or Oak Forest for a regional title.

19. Homewood-Flossmoor (19-6, 9-1) (20) -- The Vikings had some close wins during the week preparing for the Class 4A field. Homewood-Flossmoor could play Oak Lawn for a regional title at T.F. South this week. 

20. St. Viator (23-5, 9-0) (22) -- The unbeaten champs in the ESCC, the Lions are on a six-game winning streak. A No. 6 seed in the Maine East Sectional, St. Viator could have a major test against Niles North for a Class 4A regional title. 

21. Bolingbrook (19-6, 7-3) (23) -- Top seed in the Romeoville Sectional, the Raiders have been a major threat in the postseason the past few years. Bolingbrook might play Lemont or Plainfield East for a regional title.

22. Maine South (21-7, 6-4) (24) -- The Hawks have the recent win over Niles North as they're the No. 5 seed in the Maine East Sectional. As the host in the regional, Maine South could get a home game against No. 4 seed Loyola.

23. Hinsdale South (20-6, 10-2) (21) -- Hinsdale South dropped a close one to OPRF right before the postseason. The Hornets might face Willowbrook for a regional title as the No. 4 seed in the Glenbard East Sectional as the two teams split the season series. 

24. Willowbrook (23-5, 9-3) (25) -- The Warriors had an outstanding season as they are in the tough Glenbard East Sectional. A No. 5 seed, Willowbrook could face Hinsdale South for a regional title, which could be the best title game of the entire week. 

25. Jacobs (24-3, 16-0) (NR) -- Winners of the Fox Valley for the fourth straight year, the Golden Eagles are on a roll as they're a No. 2 seed in the Jacobs Sectional in Class 4A. If Jacobs gets senior Ryan Phillips back from hand injury they could be dangerous. 

Bears ’18 offseason dramatically different from ’17 but with difficult money-management issues looming

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USA TODAY

Bears ’18 offseason dramatically different from ’17 but with difficult money-management issues looming

About this time a year ago the Bears were setting up for the annual NFL beauty pageant in Indianapolis, sitting with the No. 3 pick in the 2017 draft and with myriad roster decisions to address with both that draft and free agency. Because of the Bears’ lofty draft position, even more scrutiny and attention swirled around the college prospects (Deshaun Watson, Jamal Adams, Solomon Thomas, not enough on Mitch Trubisky as it turned out, a testimonial to GM Ryan Pace’s ability to keep a secret).

But what was developing in free agency was arguably of even greater significance in what was then the short term, at least for John Fox, as it turned out. And the changed landscape this year bodes considerably better for Pace and the Bears. At least in one important respect.

First, a perspective from last year’s pre-Combine period...

Because of the unsettled quarterback situation – the Bears were working toward Mike Glennon and cutting Jay Cutler two weeks later – and concerns about a possible lame-duck situation for Fox, free agents and their agents were willing to look at the Bears but only if the Bears would pony up excessive guaranteed dollars. The worry any time a coach is heading into a tipping-point year is that if things go badly, the coach and staff are gone, and the resulting changes will alter the job situation of that particular veteran player.

So the likes of cornerbacks A.J. Bouye or Stephon Gilmore opted for less total money from Jacksonville and New England, respectively, because the Bears weren’t offering higher guarantees to compensate for the uncertainty.

(One of the reasons then-President/CEO Michael McCaskey stated to this reporter for firing Mike Ditka after the 1992 season was a concern over the negative pall Ditka cast over playing for the Bears as the NFL prepared for the 1993 start of free agency. A quarter-century later, Pace didn’t fire Fox because of free agents’ aversion to Fox, but the overall wasn’t making Pace’s job any easier.)

Would Alshon Jeffery have stayed if...

On a slightly different tack: Would Alshon Jeffery have given the Bears a more receptive look had the quarterback position been addressed sooner in the Fox/Pace tenure? Jeffery took less from the Eagles in a one-year prove-it deal, not because Philadelphia was so much warmer than Chicago, but in large part because of where the offensive arrow was pointing in Chicago with Fox, Dowell Loggains and an unsettled quarterback situation.

Not insignificantly in the Jeffery case: Jeffery had four choices – Bears, Indianapolis, Minnesota, Philadelphia. The Colts weren’t sure about Andrew Luck, coming off shoulder surgery and ultimately missing all of ’17. The Vikings were resting then on brittle Sam Bradford, whose knee broke down early, and Case Keenum wasn’t CASE KEENUM at that point. The Bears with Loggains and Glennon? Jeffery didn’t go with Philadelphia, Doug Pederson and Carson Wentz only for the money, which did come anyway.

The Bears have “fixed” all of those issues in the year that’s played out since Jeffery signed with the Eagles almost concurrent with the Bears moving on from Cutler. None of that matters now in the least with Jeffery, Bouye, Gilmore or any other options that demanded too much guaranteed money or spurned the Bears back then, but it does matter going into the run-up to free agency over the next couple weeks.

Why this in fact matters more than the draft is that, while sound organizations are grounded in quality drafting, the reality is that in virtually every offseason, more starters for that season are acquired via free agency than the draft. Last year’s draft centerpiece was Trubisky, though he wasn’t supposed to start last season. But free agents Glennon, Prince Amukamara, Marcus Cooper, Quintin Demps and Markus Wheaton and Kendall Wright were.

The money pit

Longtime Bears and NFL personnel chief Bill Tobin once remarked back in the beginning of free agency, “Just because you pay a guy $2 million doesn’t make him a $2-million player.” That still applies, adjusted for inflation. And that could make this free agency dicey for the Bears.

Because price isn’t always determined solely on quality; it’s a matter of supply and demand. And while the Bears are among those with the greatest estimated space under the projected cap of $178 million, the others way up on the list include Cleveland, Indianapolis, the Jets, Houston and Tampa Bay – all teams with five or fewer wins in ’17 and expected to be the most aggressive in using free agency to fix gaping holes. The Bears have a lot of money to spend, but so do a whole lot of others.

Meaning: A lot of dollars will be chasing a select few players, which will make some of them overpaid, not unlike Glennon was last offseason (how many apparently better options were there?) or a couple of others, who will be paid like $2 million players even if they aren’t, adjusted for inflation.

The result is another offseason of brinksmanship for Pace, this time in need of better results than his first three free agencies if the outcome for his second head coach is to be better than it was for his first.