Bears

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.

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Mitch Unrein (free agent), John Jenkins (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Jared Crick, Frostee Rucker, Dominique Easley

This unit was consistently the Bears’ best in 2017, with Akiem Hicks playing at a Pro Bowl level (don’t let his exclusion from the game fool you on that) and Eddie Goldman putting together a rock-solid, healthy year. 

Hicks signed a four-year contract extension just before the season began and rewarded the Bears with a dominant year, racking up 8 ½ sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. Goldman played in and started 15 games and was a key reason why the Bears limited opposing rushers to four yards per carry, tied for the 10th-best average in the league. 

But while the Bears’ defensive line was certainly good, it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. These words from Vic Fangio ring true for Hicks and Goldman:

“I think they all have a lot more to give to us than we’ve seen,” Fangio said. “And it’s our job to get them to improve and become even better players. That will be more important to us than anybody we can acquire between now and whenever our first game is. So, and I know it’s always sexy to talk between now and the first game, you know, who are you going to draft, who’s in free agency, etc., but we’ve got to get our so-called good players playing even better. And that will be critical.”

Hicks will enter Year 3 in Fangio’s scheme, while 2018 will be Goldman’s fourth. It’ll also be a critical year for Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris, who’ve flashed potential at times but haven’t been able to turn that into consistent success on the field. 

And that’s where we begin to look ahead to free agency and the draft. Is the Bears’ evaluation of Bullard -- their 2016 third-round pick -- positive enough to hand him a bigger role in 2018? That’s question No. 1 to answer, with No. 2 then being if the team should try to re-sign Mitch Unrein. 

It may be a bit risky to move forward with Bullard, given how popular Unrein was among the Bears’ defensive coaching staff. 

“He’s one of the glue guys on the defense and the team,” Fangio said last November. “Every team needs a few of those guys who are going to do everything right, full speed, hard and tough all the time, and that’s Mitch.”

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers offered this up about Unrein back in October: “He allows those guys to play fast,” with “those guys” being Hicks and Goldman. 

Statistically, the 30-year-old Unrein doesn’t  jump off the page, but he did record a career high 2 ½ sacks in 2017. Perhaps there would be some benefits to continuity in the Bears’ base 3-4 defensive line.

Worth noting too is this position isn’t a huge need, given Unrein usually played between 40 and 55 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps on a per-game basis last year. Keeping Unrein for a relatively low cap hit would make some sense, as opposed to testing free agency to replace him.

Jared Crick is coming off back surgery and an ineffective 2016; Dominique Easley is coming off his third torn ACL this decade; Frostee Rucker is in his mid-30’s. The Bears could look to pick a 3-4 defensive end in April, but that would be a pretty quick re-draft of the position and would be an indication they don’t think much of Bullard. This seems like a position where keeping the status quo is likely, save maybe for replacing John Jenkins with a different backup behind Goldman. 
 

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

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AP

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

There were no Lakers or Clippers in the 2018 All-Star Game, but Los Angeles was well-represented with plenty of homegrown talent, plenty of historians with Los Angeles ties and all the pageantry L.A. can provide.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George and James Harden are among the All-Stars who came home to put on the biggest show of entertainment the league has to offer, and the new format featuring captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry produced one of the most competitive finishes in recent All-Star history as the spectacle wasn’t lost on DeRozan, who plays for the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

“It was a dream come true,” DeRozan said. “I’ll forever be a part of this, and to come out and be a starter in my hometown, it was a dream come true.”

With Chicago hosting the event in 2020, one wonders if the city or the Bulls will be as represented.

“What better time to do it than in Chicago?” Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen said about his aspirations of being an All-Star sooner rather than later.

New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, to this point, is the only Chicagoan carrying the torch as an All-Star. For years, Chicago could claim their homegrown talent rivaled the likes of Los Angeles and New York, the self-proclaimed “Mecca”.

But now they’ve fallen behind in the way of star power, as Derrick Rose has gone from MVP to one of the biggest “what if” stories in modern-day sports. Jabari Parker was expected to be next in line but his future as a star is murky due to the same dreaded injury bug.

“I didn’t know that. But there’s a lot of great players (from Chicago),” Davis said Saturday during media availability. “Jabari is just coming back, Derrick is going through what he’s going through. That’s fine. D-Wade is getting older. We have a lot of great guys. Guys have been hurt, in D-Wade’s case he’s just getting up there in age now (laughs).”

Davis is arguably the league’s most versatile big man, keeping the New Orleans Pelicans afloat while DeMarcus Cousins is out with an Achilles injury. He’s had to watch the likes of George deal with free agent questions about the prospect of coming home to L.A., even after he was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City in the offseason.

It still hasn’t stopped the chants from Lakers fans, panting after George in the hope he’ll be a savior of sorts. And even though his contract isn’t up for another few seasons, teams are lining up in the hope they can acquire him through free agency or trade.

It could very well be him getting the chants when the All-Star party comes to Chicago and he could be joined by the likes of Markkanen and Zach LaVine in the big game.

LaVine was in Los Angeles for the weekend and Markkanen opened eyes around the league with his showing in the rising stars game as well as the skills challenge.

Davis could wind up being the object of everyone’s affection and could find himself being recruited by the likes of LaVine.

Even though 2021 is a long way away, a guy can dream, right?

“I mean, I’m cool with a lot of dudes in the NBA. I feel like I’m a likeable guy,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com about recruiting star players to the Bulls franchise. “I can talk about situations like that, it would be my first time being put in a position. It would be a little bit different but I think I can handle it.”

LaVine has his own contract situation to take care of this summer, being a restricted free agent but understands the Bulls’ salary cap position and their long-term goals.

“Yeah I think once the offseason comes and everybody settles down, and I’m comfortable, and I know the position I’ll be in,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com.

“I think we’ll start having those conversations because we want to get the franchise back to where it was, on that high plateau. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“I’m trying to solidify myself in the league to a certain degree. Once you start reaching those points you can talk to anybody to get to where you want to get to.”

LaVine attended several events over the weekend and shared the same space as several All-Stars in non-media settings. It’s easy to see why he would think he could have that affect with his peers.

Being careful about the rules on tampering, he said about a potential sit-down with Davis, “I would bring some Harold’s chicken to the meeting and we’ll be all good.”