Fire

Liaromatis dinner a tradition at Wilmington

922183.png

Liaromatis dinner a tradition at Wilmington

Wilmington's football program has a lot of tradition. Like winning. In 18 years, coach Jeff Reents has won 77 percent (154-46) of his games. His 2003 team finished third in Class 3A. From 2008 to 2010, his teams won 32 of 35 games. This year's team has won seven of its last eight.

But there is another tradition that is almost as popular as winning -- dinner at the Liaromatis house on Wednesday night. Thirty players, no girls. Hot dogs, hamburgers, brats, steaks on the grill. Nothing fancy.

Just guy food. Oh, one time someone brought venison.

"It has been at our house for the last three years. When I was a sophomore, my brother Steve was senior captain. Last year, I was the starting quarterback and kept it at our house. This year, too," said Sean Liaromatis.

"There is a boatload of food, usually three times what we need for 30 guys," Chris Tworek said. "We relax and talk to each other. We make a bonfire. It's a bonding thing, a lot of fun."

Liaromatis and Tworek are two of the leaders on a Wilmington team that averaged 33 points per game, shut out five opponents in a row and allowed only 71 points in a 7-2 season.

In last Friday's 35-28 victory over Herscher, the Interstate 8 Small Division champion prevailed as Chris Tworek rushed 30 times for 172 yards and two touchdowns and Mike Wolfe rushed 23 times for 167 yards and two touchdowns.

The Wildcats will play at Byron in the first round of the Class 3A playoff.

"Of all the team's I've had, this is one of the top five, the best team since 2009 when we set a lot of offensive records," Reents said. "We run a double wing offense and are known for running. But we have good balance this year. Our quarterback averages 100 yards per game passing and we have two running backs who average 100 yards per game."

Reents believes his team can make a serious run at the Class 3A title. With 11 starters returning from last year's 7-4 squad, he has a good mix of talent and experience.

"We can make a good run at the Class 3A title," the coach said. "We have a physical mentality to run and we have a lot of good athletes. Our defense compares to the 1996 and 2002 teams that went to the state semifinals. This defense has speed and great tenacity to get to the ball. We can run and pass. But we still are able to run the ball, which is our bread and butter."

The 2012 Wildcats might not be able to run the ball as effectively and as sensationally as the 1996 team led by Damian Anderson. But Liaromatis, a 5-foot-9, 180-pound senior quarterback, and Tworek, a 6-foot, 190-pound senior wingback, give them plenty of punch.

Liaromatis has passed for more than 800 yards and 13 touchdowns. Tworek has rushed for more than 1,000 yards. And Mike Wolfe, a 5-foot-8, 160-pound senior wingback, has rushed for nearly 900. Tworek also is the team's leading tackler, averaging 11 per game.

Other standouts are 6-foot-2, 190-pound wide receiverstrong safety Dan O'Leary and 6-foot-3, 280-pound offensive tacklenoseman Derrick Romano.

Ironically, Liaromatis and Tworek both were born in Bolingbrook. Tworek's family moved to Wilmington when he was 3, Lairomatis when he was 4.

"There is nothing like football on a Friday night in Wilmington," Tworek said. "Everybody comes to the game, the team comes out of the woods, through the smoke and the tunnel. Then there's the fireworks. What (Reents) has built here is pretty amazing. There is nothing else like it."

Liaromatis' father, who played football at Lisle, introduced him to the game at 5. But he admits baseball is his favorite sport while wrestling is his best sport. He qualified for the state finals at 152 last season.

"But I love playing football, the atmosphere, the team aspect," Liaromatis said. "Football is a big deal in this town. I remember when I was a kid in 2003 and 2004 and went to all the games. You drive through town and nobody is in town on Friday night. Everybody is at the game. It's cool, especially when you get to play and see a bunch of people."

It is even more fun this season with more emphasis on the passing game.

"I threw 18 passes in one game this year. I'm averaging at least 10 to 15 each game. Last year, the most I threw in one game was 16. In one game, I threw only three."

Nobody was more surprised than Liaromatis when Reents informed him of his new game plan for this year.

"We practice the same stuff over and over. But I didn't know I'd be throwing this much until (Reents) started to call for more passes in the game. I like to throw the ball this year. It's a nice surprise," he said.

Liaromatis and Tworek remember last year's 7-4 finish. They lost to Winnebago in overtime in the second round of the playoff on a trick play.

"We messed up on defense. We didn't see it coming. It was disappointing. We had home field advantage and we were hyped up. I thought we had them. Our game plan was going good. But they got us," Tworek said.

Tworek started on defense last year and also started at wingback for the last five games, accounting for 500 yards. Now he is the leader of the defense while Liaromatis controls the offense.

"Last year, we weren't sure what would happen but we put it all together at the end of the season until Winnebago," Tworek said. "This year, we have put it together early better than last year. We hope to perfect it. This team can win the state title. I have seen how teams react to each other. This team works well on both sides of the ball."

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez calls for 'honest self-reflection' of American soccer

rodriguez-1020.jpg
USA TODAY

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez calls for 'honest self-reflection' of American soccer

American soccer is fresh off the crisis of missing the 2018 World Cup and there’s plenty of screaming and yelling about what should be changed and what needs fixing.

Everything from the leadership of the U.S. Soccer Federation, coach Bruce Arena, the players, Major League Soccer’s relationship with the national team to youth development is being questioned and criticised.

While MLS academies are still, relatively speaking, in their nascent stages (the Fire’s academy launched in 2007) and the fruits of their work are still being realized, the way players are developed in this country has come under fire. That makes a comment from Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez from September 2016, just over two months before the final round of World Cup qualifying began, seem all the more relevant now.

“We’ve had organized soccer through a federation since 1913 and don’t have a male player who in my opinion is of world-class stature,” Rodriguez said. “And I mean no offense to all the great players who’ve represented U.S. Soccer, but my definition of world-class means any team in the world would want them. So that suggests to me that we need to do something differently. I think that the time is right to interject a different perspective. So I think having different experiences, different backgrounds in education and in the formation of young players is really important.”

This was in reference to the Fire hiring a foreign academy director, Frenchman Cedric Cattenoy. In light of the U.S.’s qualifying failure and this comment from a year ago, I asked Rodriguez if he thought there was something wrong in the way players are developed in this country. He began by talking about the “very holistic approach” that the team is trying to implement, on and off the field, but then he said something that stood out.

“I do believe there’s a difference between soccer and football,” Rodriguez said on Wednesday. “Some of that difference is rooted in time and tradition. Some of it is in how it’s taught and interpreted and I want us to teach, speak and play football.”

At first glance, this may come off as somewhat pretentious. Rodriguez is perhaps being snobby about the “soccer” being played in America vs. the “football” being played in the rest of the world.

Here’s the thing: it is pretentious, but it’s not wrong.

For all of its growth in stadiums, attendance, revenue and overall player quality, MLS is still a ways behind the top leagues in the world. After watching both, it doesn’t take long to notice the difference. When the top teams in the top leagues play, the game is faster, sharper, more dynamic and more entertaining.

That’s not to say MLS isn’t an entertaining product, but it can’t match a Champions League match at a world-famous stadium in front of 60,000-plus fans. MLS’ goal should be to get to that level, or at least get close to that level, even if it takes decades.

With the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga and the Champions League easily accessible on TV, young American soccer players can watch the game played at its highest level and idolize the game in that form. MLS is the more accessible avenue of the game, with the ability to attend a game in person and be part of a team’s academy being more available as the league continues to expand and academy setups become more comprehensive and sophisticated.

"What we need to do, all of us in the sport in America, is take a few moments of honest self-reflection and recommit to working in a more collaborative way instead of just trying to protect our little soccer fiefdom in our backyard and neighborhood," Rodriguez said. "(We need) all of us to work aligned so we can reach our goal, which is to get the men’s program at the standard and level of the women’s program, which is an Olympic champion and a world champion several times over."

Rodriguez wants the Fire’s academy and its players to “teach, speak and play football.” In a time when American soccer fans are feeling even more insecure than normal, it’s OK to embrace the pretentious nature of that statement. It’s for the best.

Dusty Baker takes the fall for Nationals meltdown against Cubs

dustybakerfired.jpg
USA TODAY

Dusty Baker takes the fall for Nationals meltdown against Cubs

The Washington Nationals must have been sitting at home, watching the National League Championship Series and wondering: How did we lose to this team?

The Cubs poured so much physical effort, mental focus and emotional energy into those five playoff games against the Nationals that they didn’t have much left in the tank for the bigger, better Los Angeles Dodgers team that dominated the defending World Series champs in every phase and captured the NL pennant on Thursday night at Wrigley Field.

By midday Friday, the Nationals announced that manager Dusty Baker will not return for the 2018 season, while the contracts for the big-league coaching staff have also expired, leaving a franchise with chain-of-command issues in damage-control mode.

This is a bitter disappointment for Baker, who needs a World Series ring as a manager to put the final bullet point on a Hall of Fame resume and still grumbles about how things ended in 2006 after four up-and-down years managing the Cubs.

Baker, 68, a former Marine, All-Star player and all-around Renaissance man with a great feel for dealing with people and managing the clubhouse, apparently couldn’t overcome last week’s elimination-game meltdown at Nationals Park, where the Cubs hung on for a 9-8 victory and forced Washington into its fourth first-round playoff exit since 2012.

Baker’s in-game decision-making was already under the microscope and his teams have now lost 10 straight postseason close-out games, a major-league record, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

The Nationals also needlessly subjected Stephen Strasburg to withering criticism when Baker said the $175 million pitcher was feeling under the weather — maybe because of Chicago mold and hotel air-conditioning units — and being saved for Game 5. Only to flip-flop and watch Strasburg throw seven scoreless innings in a dominant Game 4 performance at Wrigley Field.

That unforced error and yet another manager search is not a good look for the Nationals, who made the announcement through the Lerner family ownership group after general manager Mike Rizzo repeatedly signaled that he expected to reach a new agreement with Baker after winning 192 games combined in two years and back-to-back division titles.

Since the franchise relocated from Montreal and abandoned the Expos logo in 2005, the Nationals have employed seven different managers and will be starting all over again in 2018, when Bryce Harper will be in his last season before becoming a free agent and probably wondering if Washington can finally get its act together.