Preps Talk

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.

IHSA Football Playoff Pairings Show Roundup

IHSA Football Playoff Pairings Show Roundup

CLASS 1A

Revealing the Class 1A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 1A Bracket

CLASS 2A

Revealing the Class 2A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 2A Bracket

CLASS 3A

Revealing the Class 3A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 3A Bracket

CLASS 4A

Revealing the Class 4A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 4A Bracket

Predicting Class 1A-4A

CLASS 5A

Revealing the Class 5A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 5A Bracket

CLASS 6A

Revealing the Class 6A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 6A Bracket

CLASS 7A

Revealing the Class 7A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 7A Bracket

CLASS 8A

Revealing the Class 8A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 8A Bracket

Class 7A and Class 8A Predictions

 

In ugly home opener, Lauri Markkanen gives a glimmer of hope

In ugly home opener, Lauri Markkanen gives a glimmer of hope

Keeping the game simple is often a tough task for rookies entering the NBA, but it seems Lauri Markkanen has been a quick learner in that aspect.

Through two games he’s probably the lone bright spot, especially after the Bulls’ cringe-inducing 87-77 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in their home opener at the United Center.

Jumper not falling? Okay, go to the basket.

“It wasn’t falling so I tried to get to the rim a couple times,” Markkanen said. “At the end, I was like let’s do it and I connected on a 3-pointer, I felt more open just because I was at the rim. I think that helped.”

He was asked what the difference was in the second game of his career compared to the first.

“I mean the crowd was chanting for us (tonight),” Markkanen said, referring to Thursday in Toronto.

He wasn’t attempting to display any dry wit but applying common sense seems to work for him, even though he’s been thrust into a situation after an incident that doesn’t make any sense.

With Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic out for the foreseeable future, playing a game-high 37 minutes will be more common than anomaly.

“Whatever your minutes are, you gotta play them to the best of your ability,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s being allowed to play through some mistakes right now. He’s gonna play heavy minutes every night.”

He only shot five of 14 but achieved his first double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds after a 17-point, eight-rebound debut against the Raptors Thursday.

No, someone didn’t open a door for a draft to come into the United Center on that three-pointer that went wide left, but it didn’t stop him from being assertive and continuing to look for his shot.

There was plenty of muck, easy to see on the stat sheet. The 38 percent shooting overall, the lack of penetration, the 29 percent shooting from 3-point range and 20 turnovers.

It’s not hard to imagine what Markkanen will look like with competent and effective NBA players around him, along with a true facilitating point guard that will find him in this offense.

“Markkanen is a wonderful player,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s aggressive, he’s smart and obviously, he can shoot the ball. He’s just going to get better and better as he figures things out.”

He received a crash course, facing the likes of Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay Saturday night. On one instance, Gay drove baseline and made Markkanen buckle with a 3-point play.

Aldridge had 24 shots in 32 minutes as a new focal point with Kawhi Leonard out with injury.

So he’s not getting treated with kid gloves, nor is he backing down from the assignments.

“He didn’t shoot the ball well but he battled,” Hoiberg said. “He had a tough assignment with Pau, who’s gonna be in the Hall of Fame one day. Good experience. He guarded Aldridge, Rudy Gay some. He battled, he fought them.”

Even with the airball, had the moment that gives the Bulls fans hope, when he drove on Gasol, spun and hooked a lefty layup while being fouled by the veteran in the first half—giving the United Center faithful something to have faith in for a moment.

“Sometimes you get labeled as a shooter. That’s the label Lauri had,” Hoiberg said. “But he really is a complete basketball player. He’s versatile, he can put in on the deck. He slides his feet very well for a guy that’s seven feet tall, someone his age. Yeah, he’s learning on the fly. He’s gonna have ups and downs, as young as he is. He’s gonna have some struggles at times. But he’s played pretty darn well for everything he’s been through, understanding two days ago he’s gonna be in the starting lineup.”

And for all the bad air around the Bulls right now, from the on-court product to the off-court drama that seems to follow them around like Pigpen, it would be even worse if Markkanen’s first two games had him looking like a corpse, or someone who would be a couple years away from reasonably contributing to an NBA team.

“He’s good, he’s very good,” Gasol said. “I like him. I like his game.”