Cubs

Premier League the goal for Fire's Johnson

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Premier League the goal for Fire's Johnson

A year ago, Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson caught the eye of legendary Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, making a handful of quality saves against the Red Devils in front of a sold-out crowd at Soldier Field.

On Saturday, Johnson didn't dress for the Fire's international friendly against Aston Villa as manager Frank Klopas wished to rest his banged-up keeper. But even though Johnson didn't get a chance to test himself against another English Premier League squad, chances are he'll get that opportunity in the future.

"I think every player aspires to be in the Premier League," Johnson said on Friday. "Every player wants to play at the top level and be with the best, so its definitely somewhere I think if my career goes where I want it to go, hopefully one day Ill end up there."

Johnson's teammates have his back in supporting his Premier League aspirations, and with good reason. The 23-year-old keeper has saved 76 percent of the shots he's faced this season, allowing an average of 1.14 goals per match, and his mates believe he still has plenty of room for growth.

"The skys the limit for Sean," midfielder Patrick Nyarko said. "Its unbelievable how much hes developed in these last couple years. In the next year or two, if not right now, hes going to be a hot commodity somewhere."

Midfielder Chris Rolfe agreed.

"Everyone can see how talented he is and how athletically gifted he is," Rolfe explained. "But theres more to it with Sean. Hes very disciplined, hes very professional. For someone his age to be like that is, I think thats going to be the difference-maker.

"If playing in the Premier League is something he wants, I think if he puts his mind to it hes definitely capable of that."

The Premiership is home to a pair of first-team American keepers in Tim Howard (Everton) and Brad Friedel (Tottenham). Aston Villa's Brad Guzan, a native of Homer Glen, Ill., is currently locked in a battle with Ireland international Shay Given for the team's No. 1 goalkeeper job. If he wins it, he'll be the third.

Guzan re-signed with Villa only a few days ago, much to the applause of his teammates.

"Brad's always been a great keeper," midfielder Fabian Delph said after Saturday's match. "I've been at Villa three years now and as soon as I came, I remember thinking 'wow, what a keeper this guy is.' Obviously, we thought he was leaving at the end of the season and I was delighted to see him come back."

Of the nine United States expats playing in the Premiership, three are keepers. Seattle-born Marcus Hahnemann enjoyed an extensive career at England's top level, playing for Reading and Wolverhampton while those clubs enjoyed Premier League status. And fellow Washington native Kasey Keller had successful stints with Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur during his illustrious career.

Neither Delph nor Villa manager Paul Lambert could quite put their finger on why American keepers have had success in the Premier League, at least compared to their defender, midfielder and attacker counterparts. Maybe there's no answer to that question, but it has left many looking for the next great American keeper.

Friedel was with Villa for the beginning of Guzan's tenure in Birmingham, and Delph saw one Brad tutor another.

"It's a big deal for them to play in the Premier League and leave the country," Delph said. "I know Brad Friedel, and he's always been dedicated and the ultimate professional. Obviously the younger Brad working with him has rubbed off on him, and he's been exactly the same."

Perhaps there's something to the class of American goalkeepers working together and teaching one another. Johnson had that kind of learning experience last December during a one-week training session with Everton, where Howard has enjoyed considerable success.

"You realize when youre over there that youre training with the best of the best, and they have the best of the best from facilities to training sessions to everything around," Johnson said of his few days practicing with Everton. "The guys are top quality as well. So just being in that environment, youre able to raise your game and learn some things to bring back over to apply to the league here and make yourself a successful player here."

A few months after Johnson dazzled a sold-out crowd at Soldier Field for the Manchester United match, a bogus rumor circulated that United was going to bring Johnson in for a trial. While it was quickly de-bunked, the thought of Johnson donning a United jersey seemed at least plausible.

Ferguson and United already have their keeper of the future in Spaniard David De Gea. But there are 19 other clubs in the Premiership, and one of them may look to Chicago to get their hands on the next quality American goalkeeper.

Joe Maddon's advice to new Bears head coach Matt Nagy

Joe Maddon's advice to new Bears head coach Matt Nagy

Joe Maddon knows a thing or two about taking a storied Chicago franchise from a rebuilding team to a World Champ.

Bears head coach Matt Nagy hopes to have that in common with the Cubs skipper one day, and it helps that the two share a similar background: Nagy, like Maddon, grew up in Pennsylvania in a town called Manheim, about 80 miles from Maddon's hometown of Hazelton.

It took Maddon only two years to lead the Cubs to the top for the first time in 108 years, but expectations should be tempered for Nagy's Bears. It's more about the process than the results early on. 

And the only way Nagy can help eventually lead the Bears back to another Super Bowl is by doing what Maddon did.

"Just be yourself," Maddon said when asked what his advice is to Nagy. "The one thing that I found when I came to Chicago that I thought my hometown of Hazelton was a microcosm of this city and the people here. Very inviting, open folks, passionate about their sports and Bears football, so I wish you nothing but the best. But all I can say, typically, Pennsylvia: Just be yourself."

Check out Maddon's full comments in the video above.

Just the right fit: Steve Kerr sees the Bulls finally meshing into Fred Hoiberg's system

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USA TODAY

Just the right fit: Steve Kerr sees the Bulls finally meshing into Fred Hoiberg's system

Thirteen days after Fred Hoiberg was hired as the 19th head coach in Bulls history, Steve Kerr and the Warriors were crowned NBA champions. Part of Kerr’s offseason included meeting for lunch with the newest member of the 30-man head coaching fraternity. It was an important sitdown for Hoiberg, getting to speak with both a man who had followed a similar path to his now-current position, and one he was trying to emulate from a stylistic perspective.

“I think the world of Steve. He’s been great to me since I’ve been in the league,” Hoiberg said Wednesday. “He’s just done an unbelievable job and I feel fortunate to be able to talk to him about situations. And I’ve done that through good times and bad.”

Conversation between the two has been far more good than bad these days. Golden State remains the golden standard of the NBA. Wednesday's win over the Bulls was their 14th consecutive on the road, third longest in NBA history. They have the league's best record (37-9), its most efficient offense and fourth most efficient defense. 

They're far and away the favorites to hoist a third Larry O'Brien trophy in June, and even without Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala on Wednesday they pulled away with ease and cruised to a ninth win in their last 10 games. But the Bulls team they beat competed for 48 minutes - just as they've done the last six weeks - and looked far different from the one that suffered a 49-point loss in Oakland in late November.

Hoiberg admitted that the Bulls, like every team in the league, attempts “to pattern their style after this team.” And at times the Bulls looked the part of the up-tempo, step-on-your-throat offensive juggernaut the Warriors have been the last three seasons under Kerr. They scored 40 in the first, and inexplicably put together a 17-0 run spanning the first and second quarters to take a seven-point lead. It wasn't quite as pretty as Golden State's perfection looks, but the Bulls had 15 assists and scored 17 points off Warriors turnovers.

“They go in spurts, they have little streaks and runs, especially at home because they’re a talented team,” Kevin Durant said after the game.

The Warriors were just fine getting into a shooting contest with the Bulls, knowing their core containing three of the world’s best shooters would ultimately outlast their opponent. And it did. In the third quarter the Warriors’ Splash Brothers took over, with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson combining for 22 points on 6-for-10 shooting from deep. Their league-best defense, even without Green, stifled the Bulls, who scored just 11 points in the quarter.

The Bulls, as they've done in this six-week span that's included a 12-8 record, fought down the stretch, inching the deficit down to nine early in the fourth quarter and as close as five in the final minute. But the Warriors closed - same as they always do - and despite a narrow win as far as they're concerned, managed to shoot 50 percent from the field, make 13 3-pointers and hand out 24 assists. Kerr's philosophies, combined with an unprecedented roster in terms of talent, added another tally to its record-breaking win total.

And it's that combination that Kerr believes can propel the Bulls. He admitted being "flattered" that Hoiberg models much of his offense around what the Warriors have done, and said that he's followed Hoiberg since his Iowa State days (when Kerr was an NBA commentator for TNT) and sees the talent not only improving, but meshing with Hoiberg's philosophies in Year 3.

“We’re winning because we have some of the best players in the world. The only way you can truly replicate what we’ve done is to amass a ton of talent,” Kerr said. “Bulls are on the right track. They drafted Markkanen, they got some good players back in the Butler trade, and got some nice young pieces and are playing really well.”

The Jimmy Butler trade return struggled on Wednesday, going 13-for-41, but has proven to be perfect fits with Hoiberg's offense. Dunn will only improve having a creator like LaVine alongside him, and Lauri Markkanen added two more triples to his record-breaking rookie campaign. Nikola Mirotic scored 24 points with four triples, and Bobby Portis stayed efficient with 12 points on 6-for-10 shooting. Even David Nwaba, whose roster spot would have been filled by a second-round pick, played stifling defense on Curry down the stretch and even added eight points in 27 minutes.

The Bulls hit 10 3-pointers, extending their franchise record of double-digit makes to nine straight games. Their offensive rating since Dec. 7 is 12th in the league, just a tick below the Cleveland Cavaliers. Perhaps because of the offensive improvements the defense, too, has shown improvement: they're 16th in the league in efficiency since the 3-20 start. And for what it's worth, they held Golden State to seven fast-break points, more than 14 below their league-leading average.

"We have a group this year that has bought in, especially the past six weeks to getting up the floor and trying to play with pace and get shots up before the defense gets set," Hoiberg said.

So while the Bulls wait for their talent to simmer and improve, they'll go along with and continue to mesh with Hoiberg's philosophies. Golden State's 73-win record won't be in reach, and the Bulls shouldn't wait for two Hall of Famers and four All-Stars in one lineup. But Kerr and the Warriors started somewhere, and while Hoiberg needed to sift through players to find the right fits the last three years, the start of their rebuild is now in focus.

"I think we share a lot of the same vision for the game: spacing and ball movement and everybody touching the ball, feeling part of it. He knows his stuff," Kerr said of Hoiberg. "In this league it takes talent and it takes the right fit and I feel like it’s happening for them now. I know it’s taken a couple of years to get to this point, but in this league fit is everything."